Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has won a fourth term in the just concluded Bangladesh elections, which makes her the longest serving head of government that the nearly 50-year-old country has known. She has also emerged as its most powerful leader. Her Awami League took 288 of the 300 elected seats in the 350-member Jatiya Sangsad, the Bangladeshi Parliament, and as a result will get to nominate its candidates to most of the remaining seats, all of which are reserved for women. With just seven seats of its own, the Opposition Jatiya Oikiya Front has been wiped out. There have been calls by the Opposition for cancelling what it has called a “farcial” election. The campaign was marred by violence, but the 66 per cent turnout belies claims of a climate of fear and intimidation by ruling party thugs. Despite all the troubles in Bangladesh, one reason why voters have reposed their trust in her for the third consecutive term — one term was in the ’90s — is because of the country’s economic progress which has provided jobs and in turn contributed to what are South Asia’s best social indicators.
With great power comes great responsibility. It is now up to Prime Minister Hasina to ensure that her government uses its sweeping mandate not to stamp out, but to strengthen, a multi-party democracy, individual freedoms, and the rule of law in Bangladesh. The last five years saw the Hasina government take an authoritarian turn, jailing opponents, stifling dissent, and generally responding to all criticism badly. The temptation to continue in the same way would be even greater now. But by going down that road, the daughter of Mujibur Rehman, the Father of the Nation, can only do disservice both to her country and her own political legacy. Repression can lead to a rejection of democratic politics. The alternative, as is evident at many places in the world, could be much worse than what Bangladesh has experienced in the past.
As a friend of Hasina, Delhi is clearly happy at the election outcome. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate her on the victory. Ties between the two countries have never been better, leading Modi to describe it as the “golden era” in bilateral relations. India has made trade concessions to Bangladesh, invested more money in the country, and is in the midst of several infrastructure and connectivity projects. The Hasina government has shut down camps of terrorist groups operating in India’s Northeast from safe havens in Bangladesh. The only outstanding issue between the two is the Teesta river waters sharing agreement. India has rightly stayed out of the internal tumult over the last five years or more. But it is in Delhi’s interest that the polarisation that has taken place in Bangladesh under Hasina’s watch does not worsen.