Sheikh Hasina's challenges could begin after the polls

With no viable opposition, Hasina faces questions of democratic legitimacy

1241518471 Standing tall: S cutout of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on a street in Dhaka before the inauguration of the Padma bridge | Getty Images

The deck of the Padma bridge is as smooth as the perfect rasgullas from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s constituency, Gopalganj. The 6.15km bridge, which connects the 21 districts of the country’s southwest with Dhaka via road and rail, is the shiny future that Bangladesh wants. Below the bridge, quiet flows the Padma―silver, sprawling and statuesque. The sky is a soft December grey, and the bridge, a sweep of steel across the wide river, stands proudly as proof of Hasina’s ability to pull off the impossible. It was her dream project, and she did not flinch even when the World Bank withdrew funding from the $4 billion project, alleging corruption. The charges were never proven. The bridge which was inaugurated in 2022 has become a symbol of Bangladesh’s self-sufficiency and resilience, and, of course, brand Hasina.

As far as India is concerned, Hasina is clearly the favourite. On issues ranging from national security to connectivity, she has delivered.

The narrative of Hasina trumping the west has become quite a leitmotif in the legend being built around her. She has emerged stronger, silencing critics at home and in the west.

Unsurprisingly, the January 7 parliamentary elections will pit Hasina, 76, once again against the west. The results seem to be a foregone conclusion even before the first votes are cast: Hasina and her Awami League party are almost certain to land a fourth consecutive term. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), headed by arch rival Begum Khaleda Zia, is skipping the polls, alleging that the entire electoral process is neither free nor fair. Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, who is facing corruption charges, is in London. If he returns, he faces jail time.

Hasina’s battle is not so much as to win, but to prove the legitimacy of the elections. The US and the European Union are getting increasingly worked up about what they perceive to be the “erosion of democracy’’ in Bangladesh, while Russia has come out supporting Dhaka, almost reminiscent of the Cold War days. Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the US of trying to destabilise Bangladesh. “There are serious reasons to fear that… a broader arsenal of pressure tactics, including sanctions, may be used against the Bangladesh government,” she said on December 15.

The polls have emerged as yet another flashpoint in the great power dynamics in the Indian Ocean region. It goes without saying that this has great significance for India. “The elections are playing out against the backdrop of robust great power competition, because we are seeing intensifying rivalry involving key powers, and all of them increasingly have Bangladesh in their crosshairs,’’ said Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute director of the Wilson Center, Washington, D.C. “This is an unenviable diplomatic position for unaligned Dhaka. It makes its efforts to balance ties with these countries all the more difficult.”

As far as India is concerned, Hasina is clearly the favourite. On issues ranging from national security to connectivity, she has delivered. “India wants stability,’’ said Smruti S. Pattanaik, fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Hasina has provided that and more. The difficult old days when the BNP kept India out and aligned closer to Pakistan still remain a bitter memory.

BANGLADESH-ELECTION/ Winning formula: A supporter of the Awami League with posters of his party’s candidate in Dhaka | Reuters

The BNP’s electoral relevance is at stake. It boycotted the 2014 polls, and in 2018, won just seven seats. On October 28, the BNP organised a big rally in Dhaka, which turned violent and resulted in the death of a policeman. Nearly 8,000 people were arrested, including senior BNP leaders, and the party declared that it would boycott the polls unless it was overseen by a neutral caretaker government. “Hasina can’t be blamed for winning if the BNP is boycotting the elections,’’ said Deb Mukherji, former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh.

Washington, however, has not been impressed with Dhaka’s record on democracy. Bangladesh was not invited to President Joe Biden’s democracy summits in 2023 and 2021, even as Pakistan was offered a seat at the high table. In December 2021, the US sanctioned Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, citing human rights violations. The move included asset freeze and visa bans against several senior RAB officials. The Human Rights Watch had termed them as “death squads”, linking RAB leaders to disappearances of many people. “Until we see accountability, until we see sustained reform, we are not going to be able to turn the page on this,’’ said state department counsellor Derek Chollet during a visit to Bangladesh last January.

On Bangladesh independence day on March 26, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, too, referred to human rights and free elections. “We commit to working with you in support of free and fair elections, open to all. By committing to democratic norms, good governance, human rights and media freedom―all of which are hallmarks of developing, stable and prospering societies―I believe Bangladesh will achieve its great potential,’’ read his statement. In September, the US announced visa restrictions on “individuals involved in undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh”.

1750394641 Losing fight: Members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party at a rally demanding the resignation of Sheikh Hasina | Getty Images

Tensions have run high on this score, so much so that the elections came up in the 2+2 dialogue between India and the US in November. “When it comes to elections in Bangladesh, it is their domestic matter. It is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their future,” said foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra.

India is deeply invested in Bangladesh. Along with Russia, it is involved in the building of the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Pabna district. India has access to Chattogram and Mongla ports for transit and trans-shipment of cargo vessels. Both countries are also connected by multiple rail links. Even with the heavy investment made by China, Hasina has never faltered from her commitments to India, including providing the much-needed help to secure the northeast from insurgency and clamping down on radicalisation. Bangladesh is at the centre of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s connectivity dream.

“Hasina has been able to roll back jihadi elements which had been nurtured by her predecessor,’’ said Mukherji. And just how much trust Hasina commands in India can be gauged by three big moments in bilateral ties. “The three major achievements of the Indo-Bangla relationship in the last 50 years have been the settlement of the land boundary, the Ganga treaty and Bangladesh asserting that its territory would not be used for anti-India activities,’’ said Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue, Dhaka. “These three major achievements were done under [Sheikh Hasina], with three different governments in India. So, India has an empirical basis to consider when it feels concerned about other parties coming to power.”

36-The-Padma-bridge-which-the-Hasina-government Crowning glory: The Padma bridge, which the Hasina government is highlighting as one of its key achievements | Shutterstock

And India would not let Hasina down. “It is notable that since the 2+2 dialogue, the Biden administration’s public messaging on Bangladesh elections has been reduced, and no new punitive measures, whether visa restrictions or anything else, have been implemented,’’ said Kugelman. “The timing may be coincidental, or not.”

Dhaka, however, fears that this could be the lull before the storm. There are fears of sanctions, especially on the garment industry that comprises 80 per cent of Bangladeshi exports. On a visit to her constituency, Hasina was quoted as saying that the BNP, in association with ‘foreigners’, was plotting to create a famine in the country in February-March.

What complicates matters with the US is the memory of 1971. “The public reaction is emotional because of 1971, when the US opposed our liberation war,’’ said strategic affairs expert Delwar Hossain. Hasina overcame that baggage. “Despite the risk of adverse public opinion, she started a security dialogue with the US, and she continued it.” But the RAB sanctions, the removal of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) by president Barack Obama in 2013 “in view of insufficient progress…in affording Bangladeshi workers internationally recognised worker rights”, the ongoing visa restrictions and the questions about democratic legitimacy of elections have complicated matters. Hasina’s ties with Washington have grown further worse because of what is popularly referred to as the Muhammad Yunus affair. Nobel laureate Yunus, known widely as the banker to Bangladesh’s poor, had briefly flirted with the idea of a political career. This desire was seen as an American push towards a regime change. Whether this was true or not, Hasina remains deeply suspicious of Yunus. “The US can bring about regime change in any country it wants. [It wants] to bring such a government here which will not have any democratic existence,” she said in parliament in April.

37-he-Rooppur-nuclear-plant The Rooppur nuclear plant, which is a trilateral project supported by India and Russia | Shutterstock

“The US saw an opportunity,” said Imtiaz Ahmed, who was professor of international relations at Dhaka University. “They thought that if they pushed Hasina a bit more, they could bargain for other issues such as weapons and technology.” But it has not worked that way. Bangladesh is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the Padma bridge was built by Chinese contractors. China also provides Dhaka submarines. In October, Bangladesh received the first shipment of uranium fuel from Russia for its nuclear plant.

WHILE HASINA IS striving to prove her democratic legitimacy to the west through the elections, she wants to consolidate domestic support as well. She hopes that infrastructure projects like the Padma bridge will ensure that her popularity remains undiminished. Bangladesh has changed quite a lot in the past 15 years. The economic potential of the country is now very much a reality. By November 2026, Bangladesh will officially move out of the list of the least developed countries in the world.

The Dhaka skyline is dotted by shiny glass malls. It is a city in transition. The capital has a metro rail system, but the traffic jams have not yet eased; it makes the daily crawl from Gurugram to Delhi feel like a sprint, the only difference being the absence of honking. The InterContinental hotel―foreign journalists watched tanks rumble towards Dhaka University in 1971 from its roof―has been renovated. Coffee shops that use freshly-ground beans from Kenya are common in the capital.

The tragedies that loomed large over the country have been remade. The Holey Artisan Bakery where terrorists murdered 22 people, mostly foreigners, in 2016, has been reborn as Cafe Oro. There is the same deep black coffee and bread, and Oro could be any cafe, anywhere in the world. The country has also moved past the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, the deadliest garment-factory disaster in the world and the worst industrial accident in Bangladesh. The garment industry has grown at 7 per cent per year since then and every third pair of jeans sold in the US are made in Bangladesh.

1153848410 Friends with benefits: Sheikh Hasina with Chinese President Xi Jinping | Getty Images

Yet, underneath this poster of development, there are undercurrents. “It is not healthy for any democracy to have no opposition,’’ said activist Khushi Kabir. The young generation may have grown up without knowing a choice in democracy. “Why should I vote?’’ asked a young Bangladeshi we met in Dhaka. “What is the point?” A survey by Citizen’s Platform for SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), Bangladesh, held in October, found that nearly 70 per cent of the Bangladeshi youth identified “corruption and nepotism” as the main obstacles to development.

Dissent is dangerous. Opposition leaders allege torture in jail. Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem “Aaji Bangladesher Hridoy Hote” was dropped from textbooks, ostensibly because of references to the Mother Goddess. Sarat Chandra stories are missing, too. In 2021, there were attacks on Hindus. Although Hasina succeeded in crushing the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, there is fear that the support has been just pushed underground.

On the economy front, inflation is a real worry. The price of onions, for instance, fluctuates crazily―putting them out of reach for the common man.

Yet, somehow, most Bangladeshis consider Hasina to be their tallest leader. Just like Modi dominates the public space in Delhi, in Dhaka, it is Hasina and her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib was the father of the nation and Hasina has transformed herself into the mother. “Hasina is our saviour,’’ said a voter from her constituency. “If you go to her in Dhaka, you never come back empty-handed.”

For many Bangladeshis, especially the young ones, this is yet another election without any opposition. “We are not quite sure we are getting to an election, we are getting to an electoral exercise,’’ said Bhattacharya. “It is not an inclusive, participatory, competitive election. As a result, the government―whichever government comes through this process, in whatever form and size―may have constitutional legitimacy, but it will face a serious dearth of political and moral legitimacy.” There are 1,900 candidates, including many independents, running for 300 parliament seats. “But the real battle in each one of these constituencies is between the Awami League candidate and the rebel Awami League candidate,’’ said a political leader.

The BNP’s boycott has ensured that the opposition space has shrunk. The party is still paying the price for skipping the 2014 polls. As leader of the opposition, Zia had legitimacy within the political system. Now she has written herself out. Yet, there is still support for the BNP. And it is Tarique, who is controlling the party from London, who regularly addresses grassroots BNP workers. He seems to be waiting for the next elections; he believes that Hasina could be too old to fight then. “The BNP boycott will make it difficult for Washington to conclude that the elections are not free and fair,’’ said Kugelman. “The BNP cannot claim to be a victim of rigging if it is just a bystander. The Awami League cannot be accused of stealing votes if it is essentially running against itself.”

More challenges, meanwhile, await Hasina after she wins. The state of the economy will be her immediate concern. Foreign reserves are lower, hurt by the pandemic and the Ukraine war. “We are not sure that whether the outstanding problems which afflict the Bangladeshi economy will be resolved, be it the concerns about non-performing loans or high value public investment projects―all these issues are very much out there,’’ said Bhattacharya. “We are not quite sure if there will be adequate political momentum which could enforce democratic legitimacy to get this problem solved.”

Then, of course, there is concern about what the Americans will do. “There is the possibility that the US will revisit and review its relations with Dhaka if it concludes that the elections are not free and fair,’’ said Kugelman. “That could entail downgrading relations, or new punitive measures on the trade side that could hit Bangladesh hard. But this isn’t a given. For one thing, the US has good reasons to ensure continued good relations with Dhaka, including trade ties and a growing perception in Washington of Bangladesh as a strategically significant state.”