DHAKA: Bangladesh is headed for a political crisis that might impact Asia’s regional balance. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in China signing the border defence agreement and addressing future ideologues at the Chinese Communist Party school, Indian diplomats in Dhaka were desperately trying to get the two leading ladies — Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and opposition leader Khaleda Zia — to speak to each other and start a dialogue to ensure peaceful and inclusive elections to ensure a democratic transition in Bangladesh.
Hasina finally broke the ice and offered an all-party interim cabinet comprising ruling and opposition coalitions to conduct the upcoming parliament polls. She quickly followed it up by speaking to Khaleda over telephone and extending her a dinner invite. Khaleda refused the invitation and instead decided to go ahead with a 60-hour nationwide strike that turned very violent. The 37-minute conversation was reduced to a squabble involving past actions and Khaleda’s out-of-order special telephone and did little to inspire the nation’s confidence.
The BNP chief stuck to her demand for restoration of a neutral non-party caretaker Hasina insisted that was not possible after the 15th constitution amendment had scrapped it and kept offering the all-party interim cabinet instead. But the BNP chief stuck to her guns, dashing the hopes of a political reconciliation. As the conversation went viral on internet and was broadcast over Dhaka-based TV stations, Bangladesh wondered what lay in store in the days ahead.
The main show had a sideshow to it — one involving the US and Indian ambassadors. Local media reports have been agog with rumours of a no-holds barred spat between the two diplomats during a breakfast meeting, following which the US envoy Dan Mozena, flew to Delhi for consultations with Indian officials. On his return to Dhaka, media reports quoting US embassy sources suggested, “India and the US were on the same page in Bangladesh.” Upset with these reports, the Indian high commission and the ministry of external affairs reacted furiously. Quoting unnamed Indian diplomats, the local media reported that India and the US were “not on the same page”.
Privately, Indian diplomats told journalists that Mozena was “behaving like a standing committee member of the BNP”. They say he is “doing everything to bring back the BNP to power” and Khaleda is ever so determined to bring down the Hasina government through violent street protests increasingly orchestrated by the radical Jamaat-e-Islami with US encouragement.
And when media reports surfaced over India and the US being on the same page, Indian diplomats saw it as an American move to drive a wedge between India and its best friend in Dhaka, the Awami League, whose government has delivered on India’s security and connectivity concerns like no government in Dhaka has ever done. India has good reasons to feel beholden to the Hasina government, though the diplomats are not oblivious to the anti-incumbency she faces. But if Washington has a choice in Dhaka, how can it deny India having a right to its own choice of a friend?
The US feels a BNP-led government will serve its strategic interests and may help it stop Chinese inroads into the country. India has reservations about the BNP after trying to unsuccessfully court it during Khaleda’s 2001-06 tenure. For Delhi, the real worry is Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam.
Delhi has good reasons to fear such a dispensation as likely to be inimical to its security. India feels the US is overlooking the spectre of a revival of Islamic radicalism Bangladesh experienced when Khaleda was last in power and thus weakening the focus of the war against terror.
But the most important element in the US-India spat in Dhaka was an unnamed Indian diplomat describing the Chinese stand on the emerging political crisis in Bangladesh as “constructive”. Chinese ambassador Li Jun has been more vocal than any of his predecessors. In recent weeks, he has thrice issued statements on Bangladesh’s political crisis, asking “wisdom to prevail over violence” and even suggesting China was trying to mediate in the crisis through “our friends in both the parties”.
China is keen to go ahead with its plans to build a deep sea port in Sonadia off the Chittagong coast. For the first time, Indian diplomats are not worried about another ‘pearl in the string’. They believe Sonadia can help India access its northeast better and the whole project can fit into the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar plan to develop connectivity for increased trade, investment and commerce.
As Bangladesh slides into a violent imbroglio, India appears nervous over the future of its east and northeast which are afflicted by violent statehood movements and insurgencies. It cannot afford a hostile government in Dhaka. This, in a way, revives the pre-1971 scenario where a similar situation forced India to back the Bengali insurrection and militarily intervene in East Pakistan, braving threats of a US naval intervention.
The only difference now is that befriending China to balance off the US and vice versa is a realistic option for India. Delhi appears keen to demonstrate it is nobody’s surrogate and retains the option to balance off the US with China by what it does in Bangladesh in the days ahead.
Source: Times of India