BNP seeks India’s help for free and fair polls in Bangladesh

BNP seeks India’s help for free and fair polls in Bangladesh

‘Hasina government is attempting to build a one-party rule’

India must be seen as a “champion of democracy and human rights” in the region, said senior leaders of Bangladesh’s main Opposition party on a visit to New Delhi.

Accusing the Sheikh Hasina government of attempting to build a “one-party rule” in Bangladesh, the leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is led by jailed former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, appealed to the Narendra Modi government to support a free and fair process during elections due in December. “It is important for the Bangladeshi people to see their big neighbour play such a constructive role, and not back any one party in the elections,” BNP standing committee member Amir Khosru Chowdhury told The Hindu.

‘Win for India’

Mr. Chowdhury was referring to what he called the “misperception” in Bangladesh that India supports all actions by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League. “If democracy prevails in Bangladesh, then whoever wins, it is a win for India,” he added.

The BNP delegation is presently in Delhi to improve ties across parties and speak at a number of think tanks with a mission to “dispel” the long-held preference in India to deal with the Awami League. The preference has historical reasons, given India supported the Mukti Bahini movement of Sheikh Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman for Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971, while Khaleda Zia’s husband General Zia-ur Rahman set Bangladesh on an Islamist course, that saw pro-Pakistani elements grow during his military reign that followed (1977-1981).

Khaleda Zia’s tenures as Prime Minister (1991-1996 and 2001-2006) saw the rise of terror groups that targeted India like the Harkat Ul Jihad Islami, while Sheikh Hasina is credited with ending safe havens for these groups and handing over several wanted terrorists taking shelter in Bangladesh to India after she came to power in 2008. However, in 2012, Khaleda Zia declared during a visit to India that Bangladesh territory would “never be used for anti-India activities” if the BNP were to return to power.

Looking forward

“We need to look forward rather than backward. The politics of the 80s and the 90s is out the window now,” said BNP international affairs secretary Humaiun Kobir, who is adviser to the de-facto BNP leader, Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rehman, who lives in exile in the U.K. “Mr. Rehman wants us to engage India, and today the young populations of both our countries are our priority,” he added.

Loss of power

Since 2014, when the BNP boycotted elections in Bangladesh, and gave Sheikh Hasina a virtual walkover, the BNP has struggled with its loss of power. In addition, the Hasina government has filed an estimated 78,000 cases against the entire rank and file of the BNP, which the leaders claimed meant that about 1.8 million BNP workers and office-bearers had been charged, arrested or forced into exile. In an interview to The Hindu in 2016, Ms. Hasina had denied that the cases were politically motivated, saying they pertained to criminal charges of violence and corruption. In February this year, 72-year old Khaleda Zia was sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment on charges of embezzlement of charity funds pertaining to a 1991 case. The verdict could bar the entire top leadership of the BNP from standing for elections this year, which its delegation said would stifle the “democratic and electoral space” which they said has “fuelled religious extremism as well.”

“The absence of participation and inclusive democracy in Bangladesh will drive many groups that have been targeted underground,” warned Mr. Chowdhury. “The only way forward is for India to lead the international community in ensuring free elections, under an impartial election commission, monitored by them,” he told The Hindu.

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