Why Khaleda Zia sharpening the election knife against Sheikh Hasina should worry India

Pakistan seems to be in hurry to destabilise the Awami League government in Bangladesh due to its growing proximity with India.

 |  6-minute read |   14-11-2017
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At a massive political rally at Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka on November 12, former Bangladesh premier Begum Khaleda Zia asserted that no fair election is possible in Bangladesh with Sheikh Hasina in power.

This is clearly a loud and clear warning by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson in an apparent attempt to give Hasina the jitters and caution that the poll bugle will soon be sounded and pressure will be steadily mounted on the Prime Minister and her ruling Awami League.  Sensing the receptive mood of the audience as the rally venue was filled chock-a-block, Khaleda Zia also asked for deployment of army during the elections.

The next general elections in Bangladesh are expected by the end of 2018 or early 2019. The call for army deployment is also a clever political move by the BNP leader demonstrating the element of "faith" she reposes in the armed forces.

This is an obvious political initiative to woo the army and at the same time a possible bid to wean them away from those at the helm of power. 

It is common knowledge that Khaleda Zia is no stranger to Bangladesh cantonment as her late husband Zia ur Rahman was himself  an army officer, a freedom fighter and rose to politics eventually assuming presidentship of the country from the barracks.

sh-reuters_100217042_111417074609.jpgImage: Reuters photo

In fact, Khaleda Zia lived in a cantonment accommodation for a long time and moved to a civilian locality only when the present government put pressure on her for a forcible eviction. That was also a politically clever move to severe her contacts with the men in khaki and a politicised segment of the army. 

But very astutely, Khaleda Zia, during her November 12 address, touched upon the most recent burning issues of disappearances of journalists and academics castigating the government for a complete  breakdown  of law and order.

She also blamed the government for axing chief justice SK Sinha and forcibly banishing him into oblivion and exercising unbridled control over the judiciary curbing its independence.

Politically, it is seen as a smart move as such a statement, at this point in time,  is likely to evoke some sympathy among the Hindu minority, as Sinha is a Hindu and there are occasional allegations in Bangladesh against the establishment for its inability to protect the minority or give them a fair share. 

So why did Khaleda Zia choose this time to ask for deployment of army to oversee the elections? Well, she chose to strike now as any delay would help Hasina consolidate her political gains. Also, she is now reeling under mounting pressure from the international quarters dealing with nearly a million Rohingyas amid reported threats of radicalisation. Their possible nexus with the terrorist groups also looks likely. 

Most importantly, Pakistan too must be in a hurry to destabilise the Hasina government mainly due to its growing proximity with India.

In this connection, it would be pertinent to point out that Khaleda Zia was recently in the UK where she not only met her son Tarique Rahman, who has been living in London for past several years and, is wanted in Bangladesh on various charges of corruption and fraud.  

It is strongly suspected that Tarique is in touch with Pakistani ISI officials who are briefing him and his mother the future course of action to remain in the political mainstream and come back to power at the earliest.

The "prescription" given to the mother-son duo seems to have bolstered Khaleda Zia to chart out her political strategy in the not so distant future. 

This assessment does not appear to be wide off the mark as ever since Khaleda Zia has returned from London, her body language seems to have changed. Her conduct during the road journey from the Dhaka International Airport to her place of stay as well as her attitude at the court, when her hearing on a criminal case was being carried out, was that of a person oozing confidence to fight back her adversaries. These signs well-articulated in her address yesterday. 

Earlier, Khaleda Zia confidently met Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj when the latter  was in Dhaka not very long ago. It's worth recalling that during former president Pranab Mukherji's visit to Dhaka,  Khaleda Zia gave the much-expected and desired courtesy call to Pranab babu a glaring miss.

It passed off as a diplomatic faux pas but her act was not compatible with Khaleda Zia's status as leader of the opposition party and former prime minister. What made her give it a slip could be seen as a move done under Pakistan's machinations, but her body language then and today are strikingly different. 

She visibly looks poised to take on Hasina politically. This fits into the calculations that  her mentors and patrons across the borders had carefully scripted her speech and most likely have crafted an almost fail-proof strategy to handle her formidable political foe Sheikh Hasina.

To match Khaleda Zia's political offensive, it would appear advisable for Hasina and her party to close ranks and fight her opponent with determination taking all the secular forces on board. Jamaat- e-Islami (JeI) stands banned to fight elections as a political party, but its cadres prevail with active links with terrorist and extremist outfits like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) , Hizb ut-Tahrir, Hefazat-e-Islam and their affiliates. They will , in all probability, rally around Khaleda Zia as the election dates close in. 

As far as tightening its domestic security scene is concerned, respective agencies need to keep a sharp eye on the undesirable elements among the Rohingya refugees and their associates embedded in the Jihadi groups.

Khaleda Zia and her collaborators will try to gather as much ammunition as they can to target Hasina. This calls for a committed investigation into cases of recent disappearances particularly to trace Mubashar Hasan, the teacher in North South University whose whereabouts are still not known.

Should something untoward happen to the missing academic, consequences are likely to be detrimental to Hasina's political interests, enabling Khaleda Zia to draw huge political mileage and adding much fuel to an opposition-led agitation that might snowball into a major challenge before the government.

Also read: Taslima Nasreen writes to Sheikh Hasina: Why do you weep for Rohingyas, but not for me?

Writer

Shantanu Mukharji Shantanu Mukharji @shantanu2818

The author is a retired IPS officer who has held key positions in the Government of India handling sensitive security issues within and outside India.

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