Oporajeyo Bangladesh (Undefeated Bangladesh). This was written in a ballroom at the Westin hotel in Dhaka’s posh Gulshan neighbourhood, where at least a dozen intellectuals had gathered on Saturday to urge “the youth” to vote for “liberation”, and “against communalism and fundamentalism”. The event was broadcast live on Ekkator TV, one of Bangladesh’s pro-Awami League television channels.
With the model code of conduct barring campaigning after 8 am Friday — 48 hours before polling begins — this carefully choreographed event was a last-ditch attempt by the Awami League to reach out to voters. In Bangladesh, asking for votes in the name of “liberation war” is a euphemism for Awami League.
A half-hour drive from the hotel stands the Awami League’s new office, an 11-storey building with wooden finish doors, hidden lighting and leather sofas, which was inaugurated earlier this year to mark 10 years of the party’s power. Inside is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political advisor, Hossain Toufique Imam, the 83-year-old stalwart behind the party’s political campaign.
Barely five-feet-tall, with thick, black-framed spectacles, he wears a blue-checked coat with a “golden boat” brooch — the boat is Awami League’s election symbol, and “sonar Bangla” (golden Bengal) the party’s chorus. Imam dismissed the magnitude of violence in the country in the run-up to the elections. “In 1991, 2008 and 2014, the level of violence was much higher. It it is the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) which resorts to violence,” he told The Sunday Express, adding, “How can you resist when they have unleashed barbaric and ruthless terrorism? Seven of our people have been killed in the past two months since elections were announced.”
A choice between economic growth and extremism
Bangladeshi voters will decide Sunday whether to punish the governing party for worsening human rights conditions or reward it for overseeing a booming economy. In defending her record, Sheikh Hasina questioned the very definition of human rights. “If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights,” she told The New York Times. Her son, Sajeeb Wazed, told Reuters that she considers being called authoritarian by media a “badge of honour”. Voters complain this election gives them few real choices. The opposition is comprised of the BNP-Jamaat alliance, which has a history of political and religious extremism. Some voters who are satisfied with the economic development under Hasina, say they might “choose the lesser of two evils in our politics” and vote for the BNP, not because they think the party has a greater affinity for human rights, but because they hope to provide a check on the governing party in Parliament.
As the point man to handle crises for the party — an aide said he “can show the party how to drink water from the hose pipes meant to douse the fire” — Imam is considered to be one of Hasina’s closest advisors. He was the country’s first Cabinet Secretary in 1971, and worked closely with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He led the charge during the 2006-7 negotiations for the caretaker government, after the rebellion in the BGB in 2009, the tense stand-off in Dhaka between the people and the Islamic groups over the war crimes trial in 2013, the election boycott by the BNP in 2014, the Holy Bakery Cafe attack in 2016 and, more recently, after Khaleda Zia was sent to the jail.
“Khaleda Zia avoided the courts initially. If she would have gone to court, she could have avoided jail. She got a chance to appeal and has exercised all legal options available to her,” he said.
Zia’s imprisonment has led some to question the absence of a level-playing field in the country’s politics. “The lesson is you cannot run away from justice..if you have integrity and honesty, you will not be in jail,” he said, pointing to Zia’s corruption charges. Her son and political heir, Tarique, is in London, as he has been sentenced for 10 years.
Loyal to Hasina, Imam calls her Bangabandhu’s “illustrious daughter” at least three times in half-an-hour, and defends and projects the social and economic milestones of the government. Atiur Rahman, former Central Bank Bangladesh Governor, said, “In my view, there is no campaign in Bangladesh right now in favour of anti-incumbency. Growth rate has increased from around 5 per cent to 7.86 per cent over the last decade. The foreign exchange reserve increased five times and both investment and savings enhanced to 30 per cent plus of GDP. The consumption Gini-coefficient remains stable at .33 despite increased income inequality. According to the IMS’s Inclusive Development Index (2017), Bangladesh was a member of the elite group of forty with its 34th position, compared to India, which was at 62.”
“The recent social indicators are equally impressive with halving of poverty rate, more than halving of infant and mortality rates, total fertility rate leading to 73 years of life expectancy (at least four years more than the South Asian average). Bangladesh is now number one In Gender Equality Index in South Asia and 48th in the World,” Rahman said. But amid the growth story, there are also problems. Imam pointed out that there are anti-Bangladesh and pro-Pakistan “forces” in the country, alluding to the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. Although Jamaat has been de-registered as a political party by the Election Commission, former leaders of the banned outfit are contesting elections on the BNP’s ticket.
But Hasina’s party has also come under severe criticism from many liberals that she has tied up with Islamist groups like Hefazat-e-Islam, which is seen as a hardliner. While many see this as politics of convenience, Awami League leaders defend the decision by saying that they are trying to divide the Islamic groups and bring them into the fold. But Imam believes that it is Hasina’s personal popularity which is incomparable and will win them elections. On Saturday, he met young college student volunteers, as he gave instructions behind closed doors.
“I have asked all followers of the Awami League to remain calm and peaceful. There will be no victory procession,” he said, even if they win. On the way home, he said he likes to spend with his family, including great grandchildren. Once a bridge player, he now relaxes by reading books — the Indian ambassador recently gifted him a book by former Army Chief V P Malik.