It’s the night of December 31, New Year’s eve. At the posh Baridhara Diplomatic Enclave Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s elite have gathered for a “small celebration” this chilly night, hours after Sheikh Hasina led her Awami League to an astounding win for her third straight term in power since 2008.
“She was shocked,” says one of AL’s (as the ruling party is referred to in these circles) strategists about Hasina’s reaction to the big win. Amid copious amounts of fish, mutton and beef cuisines from Chittagong, the discussions veer round to the victory and what it means for the government.
“Oneyk expectations berey gechhe, lokjoner… oigulo puro korte hobey (Expectations are going sky high, they have to be met),” says Mozammel Babu Haque, chief editor of Ekattor, a TV channel that is seen as pro-Awami League.
“AL’s main test will be to tell the youth that we stand for better economic opportunities and a more just society. Jobs and rule of law… that should be the priority,” says Ashikur Rahman, political analyst and an economist with the Policy Research Institute in Dhaka.
While questions have been raised on the credibility of the elections — with the Awami League winning an astounding 288 out of 298 seats and getting 80 per cent of the votes — the burden of rising expectations is slowly dawning on the ruling elite.
At least two massive agitations in 2018 — one a student-led agitation against reservations in government services and the other a public protest seeking road safety — have been indication enough that in a society as socially and politically aware as Bangladesh’s, the government cannot sit back despite the lack of an opposition.
But for now, in the heady days after the Awami League’s win, these seem minor irritants when weighed against the 10 years of economic development, which, many say, brought her back to power.
Over the last decade, Bangladesh’s growth rate has gone up from around 5 per cent in 2008 to 7.86 per cent in 2017-18, with key sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and services growing alongside. During this period, foreign exchange reserves increased five times and both investment and savings enhanced to over 30 per cent of the GDP. Per capita income has risen nearly threefold since 2009, reaching $1,750 this year, and the number of people living in extreme poverty — classified as under $1.25 per day — has shrunk from about 19 per cent of the population to less than 9 per cent over the same period, according to the World Bank.
A vast community of about 2.5 million Bangladeshi overseas workers further fuels the economy with remittances, which jumped 18 per cent over the previous year to reach $15 billion in 2018.
Atiur Rahman, former governor of the Central Bank of Bangladesh, says, “Anti-incumbency is usually visible in times of economic depression, unemployment and recession in business, but since the Bangladesh economy was doing quite well, there was not even a ripple of anti-incumbency.”
Nowhere is this economic wealth more apparent than the shopping malls and restaurants that dot capital Dhaka, and on the roads, with Toyota cars having captured more than half the market share.
The country’s elite talk casually of flying to Kolkata over the weekend for shopping, movies, and pub-hopping.
“Kolkata is a mere 20-25-minute flight away. In fact, Kolkata is closer than Chittagong, which takes one hour by air,” says Mahjabeen Khaled, an Awami League MP, as she sips Americano at the Holey Bakery Artisan cafe, which reopened six months after the 2016 terrorist attack.
In May 2017, about 40 Bangladeshi movie buffs took a chartered flight to Kolkata to watch Baahubali, one of the most popular Indian movies that year. Ever year, in the run-up to Durga Puja and Eid, the number of Bangladeshis travelling to India, Kolkata in particular, shoots up. Last year, in the days before Durga Puja, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka issued 12,200 visas in one day alone — the number is usually 5,000-7,000 visas. Similarly, before Eid, 10,000 visas were issued in a single day.
Apart from these evident signs of prosperity, Bangladesh’s social indicators have also improved, with the country making impressive strides in tackling poverty and infant mortality, forcing bigger neighbours such as India to play catch-up. Life expectancy at birth in the country is now 72.49 years (India: 68.56 years), at least four years more than the South Asian average.
While the success on the economic front played no small role in propelling Hasina to the PM’s chair, her fourth stint overall, she has combined it with ruthless dominance over the country’s political landscape, stamping out any hint of opposition and almost decimating the Awami League’s main rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and imprisoning its leader Khaleda Zia on a Rs 1.73 crore corruption charge. Zia was arrested in February 2018 after being convicted of embezzling money intended for an orphanage.
Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the BNP’s senior joint secretary general and the man who has emerged as the party’s face, holding its daily press conferences, has been staying in the BNP’s Naya Paltan office for the last six months. He has over 20 political cases against him and he fears he will be arrested if he steps out.
Sitting in his office four days before the elections, with Philip Kotler’s Democracy in Decline and Salman Rushdie’s Golden House on his table and and photographs of Zia and her son Tarique Rahman on the walls, he asks, “Have you seen any posters of the BNP in the city?”
“No?” he asks, throwing his hands up in the air. “The police and district administration have been refusing us permission to hold public rallies… We have been able to hold only local-level meetings in constituencies or go on door-to-door campaigns,” he adds wearily, snatching glances at the news ticker running on the Philips TV in his room.
Moments ago, when he was addressing the media, Rizvi had got news of an attack on a BNP leader. He says that since the election schedule was announced early November, there have been more than 2,600 clashes with Awami League members, leading to the death of four leaders and workers of the BNP and injuries to more than 12,350.
Rizvi complains that Hasina hasn’t extended to Zia any of the courtesies due to a three-time prime minister, keeping her in a dilapidated jail “with rats and cats”. Zia, 72, is housed in the 19th Century Dhaka Central Jail, which has been turned into a courtroom to try the BNP leader and where she is the only inmate. Zia, who suffers from diabetes and arthritis, is allowed an attendant in jail.
Rizvi alleges that Zia’s access to her family members — brother Shamim Eskander, sister-in-law Kaniz Fatema, and sister Selina Islam — is restricted to fortnightly visits. “If they allow the families to meet on Eid, then they cancel the fortnightly meetings. Last Eid, they did not allow the family to bring her home-cooked food,” says BNP campaign coordinator Nazrul.
Sabihuddin Ahmed, a former diplomat who was Khaleda’s private secretary between 2001 and 2006, chokes as he says, “I really feel bad for the lady. She has been like a mother to many of us.”
Khaleda’s son Tarique, who has also been sentenced to 10 years in jail, has been living in London for almost 10 years, and has been described “fugitive” under law.
Many say the 2014 elections, which the BNP boycotted, were a turning point in the “battle of the Begums” that has defined the country’s politics. By staying out that election, Zia had hoped to do what Hasina did so successfully in 1996 — boycott the elections and force a re-election under a caretaker government.
But some years earlier, in 2011, the Hasina-led Awami League government had made a Constitutional amendment, abolishing the caretaker system and mandating that elections will be held under the democratically elected government.
A senior journalist in Bangladesh calls the BNP’s 2014 poll boycott the “blunder of the century”. That election, Awami League candidates had a walkover, winning “uncontested” from 153 seats and ending up with 234 of 300 parliament seats.
“Khaleda had underestimated Hasina’s ability to stay calm in the face of protests. In 2014, though the BNP and its right-wing ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, held protests across the country seeking a re-election, the administration did not budge and police cracked down on the Opposition,” says the journalist who preferred to remain anonymous.
Out of parliament for the last four years, the BNP went into the 2018 elections facing an existential crisis — there were no cadres on the ground. “Since there were no MPs in parliament, the party did not have access to constituency development funds. Neither did we have any influence with the local administration to dole out sops to our local-level activists, in terms of jobs or other such benefits. Our party base has shrunk at the local level,” says a BNP leader.
On the other hand, the Awami League, which already had a strong footprint at the grassroots level, grew in strength.
While the Opposition was being wiped out, the Hasina government consolidated its influence and control on the media. The arrest in August 2018 of photographer Shahidul Alam, who was detained for posting live videos on Facebook critisising the government’s response to the 2018 road safety protests, was seen as a challenge to freedom of speech in Bangladesh, with several calls seeking his release. Alam was later released on bail, but the incident served to add to Hasina’s image as an authoritarian leader.
Such challenges to her authority have, however, been rare. In the run-up to the elections, a majority of the television news channels, with Ekattor and Ekushey TV leading the pack, openly sided with the ruling Awami League.
Ekattor TV, which gets its name from the 1971 Bangladeshi Liberation War (Ekattor is 71 in Bangla), is vocal about its support to the “liberation war spirit” — a euphemism for support to the Awami League.
In January 2015, another channel, Ekushey TV, broadcast live a speech and press conference from London by Khaleda’s son Tarique. The government responded by cracking down and arresting its chairman Abdus Salam in an earlier case lodged against the TV station under anti-pornography laws. Within months, a pro-government business tycoon, Mohammad Saiful Alam, took over the channel’s ownership.
Only NTV, a news channel owned by a BNP leader, has been able to survive despite being critical of the government, though it has had to tone down the criticism.
The two top newspapers, The Daily Star in English and Prothom Alo in Bangla, have, however, managed to remain firm in their opposition to the Hasina government. This, despite Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, being slapped with 83 sedition and defamation cases in 2016.
Says a person associated with the newspaper, “Reporters from our paper were not allowed to cover the PM’s events for the last few years. In recent months, even Prothom Alo’s reporters were denied access. Top advertisers, including telecom companies and multi-national companies, were asked not to advertise in the paper. Our revenue has fallen by about 30 per cent.”
Many point to Hasina’s run-ins with the judiciary as proof of her rising authoritarianism. In 2017, Bangladesh Supreme Court Justice S K Sinha was allegedly forced to resign as he scrapped parliament’s authority to impeach Supreme Court judges.
While the Hasina government has always denied the charge, in A Broken Dream, a tell-all memoir, Justice Sinha, who now lives in Canada in exile, writes that on October 1, 2017, a day before the court was to hear an appeal on its impeachment ruling, he was invited to a late-night meeting where the president, the law minister, the attorney general and Prime Minister Hasina repeatedly pressed him to rule “in favour of the government”.
“The prime minister appeared to be blind for retaining power and her only objective was how to control the Supreme Court for coming to power in the next election. Her approach was unethical and unconstitutional,” Sinha writes.
All this while, as Hasina consolidated power, India has stood by her side. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee were among the first to congratulate Hasina on December 31 on her victory, along with Bhutan PM Lotay Tshering.
“She has been extremely good towards India. And her approach on terrorism, when we compare her with BNP-Jamaat regimes in the past, especially the 2001-2006 term, is much better. So, the Indian government stood by her,” says an Indian diplomat in Dhaka.
Many say that it’s Hasina’s tough stand on terrorism and fundamentalism that has kept voters on her side.
To many in Bangladesh, the BNP-Jamaat regime from 2001 to 2006 comes with memories of violence and attacks on minorities. On August 17, 2005, around 500 bombs went off in 300 locations across 63 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. The period also saw a rise in anti-India terrorist activities — in 2004, the Bangladesh police and Coast Guard busted an arms operation that was allegedly smuggling weapons into India for the United Liberation Front of Asom.
After coming to power in 2008, Hasina tapped into the popular anger against the Jamaat-e-Islami and pushed for a war crimes trial for “atrocities committed by razakars (collaborators with the Pakistan Army in the 1971 war)”.
So far, seven Jamaat leaders have been sentenced to death and one sentenced to life in jail, wiping out the top leadership of the Islamist party.
Yet, with 3,000 razakars still to be tried, many criticise the Awami League for having lost interest in the trial.
“See, for common people, who have had their fathers killed or mothers raped, it is much more important for those 3,000 to be punished. But, the government is going slow on the punishment,” says a senior journalist who has covered the war crimes trial since 2011, indicating that with the top Jamaat leaders out of the way, Hasina’s political objectives have been met and she has lost interest in the case. One of the two war crime trial courts has been shut, fuelling the perception that the Hasina government is “playing politics”.
But this election, given the BNP-Jamaat’s track record, the country’s vast liberal-secular voters had no option but to go with Hasina despite fears of a weakening democracy. Besides, the July 2016 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery once again brought home the threat of fundamentalism, forcing many to rally behind the Awami League.
Shahriar Kabir, a filmmaker-activist, calls the Jamaat-e-Islami “a real threat”. “The ISIS, which was behind the attack, got a foothold in Bangladesh because of the Jamaat. The BNP must take the blame for giving tickets to 22 leaders from the banned Jamaat, and trying to mainstream them,” he says.
Hours after the Election Commission declared her victorious, Hasina, flanked by her advisors, H T Imam and Gowher Rizvi, admitted Bangladesh was a “nascent democracy” unlike many other democracies and said, “I can’t accept authoritarian and military regimes. I am running the country very liberally. But I will not allow terrorism, drugs and corruption, and I will do my best to save our people from these ills.”
And then, in a room gleaming with chandeliers and golden curtains, she added, “I am the Prime Minister of the country, of all the people, not just of a party.”
On the lack of an Opposition space, she quipped, “Bengalis love to talk… there are so many talk shows on TV.”