For Bangladeshi politics, a turbulent time looms

Last Friday was the 51st anniversary of the surrender of the Pakistan army in East Pakistan. It was a miserable land. During the British Raj, it was the poverty-stricken grower of jute that was processed and sold in the mills of Calcutta (now, Kolkata) where the money was made. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the nationalist Awami League, maintained the situation hadn’t changed after Partition, except that the West Pakistanis had taken over from the Raj. Since then, Sheikh Hasina, who is Mujib’s daughter, has achieved what an economist told me was “an economic miracle” in Bangladesh. From creating despair among development economists, investors and donors, as it used to, the country now gives them hope. But has the bubble burst?

Political stability has been one of the reasons often given by international investors for choosing Bangladesh, but now it seems Sheikh Hasina is going to be facing a challenge that might create political instability. On the Friday before last, a Bangladeshi person was killed in a clash between supporters of the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the police, when the police opened fire. The day after that, there was a very well-attended BNP rally in Dhaka. It passed off without violence, but there were some very aggressive speeches and threats to launch a movement. A BNP standing committee member, Khondker Mosharraf Hossain, said, “The Awami League has destroyed the economy, looted money from the banks, and destroyed the judiciary. We must destroy it.” There has already been a series of BNP rallies in the districts and the Dhaka rally could prove to be the beginning of a movement.

Sheikh Hasina is now facing severe economic problems that could provide fuel for the fire if the Opposition lights it. The country was particularly badly affected by the global fuel crisis: 85% of its energy comes from fossil fuel and Bangladesh has not made much progress with ramping up its green energy, nor does it produce much oil or gas of its own. It is dependent on Russia and China to maintain its supply. Russian supplies are affected by the European Union’s embargo. The government is now instituting power cuts lasting, on average, three hours.

Electricity produced by generators costs three or four times more than electricity from the mains. The cuts, apart from being unpopular with domestic customers, are very damaging to manufacturers. Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in manufacturing readymade goods. They are now some 10% of the Gross Domestic Product and 84% of exports. But the readymade goods market is highly competitive, cost-conscious, and mobile. In considering the economic problems Bangladesh has to face, one must not forget inflation that seems to be global and its impact on the cost of living, along with the impact of Russia’s continuing war on Ukraine and the rising price of produce.

If the BNP does start a movement, do they have a chance of ousting Hasina? She has been in power for a long time, so there is the possibility of an anti-incumbency factor going in the Opposition’s favour. Like the Awami League, the BNP is a family party. It’s officially led by the widow of another assassinated leader, Ziaur Rahman. But Begum Khaleda Zia is not in good health and has been held under arrest for some time. Her son was convicted of corruption in Bangladesh and has fled to live in the United Kingdom. The party’s anti-Indian stand is no longer likely to be a vote winner, and memories of the blatant corruption when it was last in power will probably have an effect, not that there hasn’t been corruption under the Awami League.

Much will depend on how Hasina deals with the current crisis. If she cannot improve the economy and deals with the BNP with a heavy hand, she might find trouble coming from the army, which has an unhappy history of involvement in Bangladeshi politics.

The views expressed are personal

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading