Battle of Begums In Bangladesh

By Sunil Dang

A court in Bangladesh sentenced Opposition leader Khaleda Zia to five years in jail after convicting the former Prime Minister of embezzling money meant for an orphanage. The conviction and rigorous imprisonment for five years of Bangladesh’s Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia by a Dhaka special court is of cool comfort for India that has had a consistently happy relationship with her bête noire and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

It would be impolitic for the Narendra Modi government to say so in public, but that Hasina is the best bet for India is indisputable. Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first prime minister, forged excellent relations with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In a similar vein, various Governments of Mujibur’s daughter, Hasina, have established good relations with New Delhi.

The thought of Khaleda returning to power in this December’s election had been worrying New Delhi since, by common perception, Khaleda’s two terms as prime minister — 1991-96 and 2001-06 — were years of Bangladesh’s unholy nexus with India’s northeastern separatists and of an undercurrent of strained relations with India.

By contrast, Hasina has been well-disposed towards India and has proved it by her actions.

With China assiduously wooing Bangladesh especially after Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016, and dramatically handed over a cheque for $26 billion to Hasina, Khaleda could as well  takeup the opportunity to deepen ties further with Beijing if she returns to power. Now, it is on the cards that because of the conviction, Khaleda will be barred from contesting elections and Hasina’s reign will continue smoothly. Predictably, the Hasina regime shall  cold-shoulder Beijing beyond a point.

Xi followed his visit to Dhaka with the sale of two submarines from China and also allowed Chinese companies to build some infrastructure around the Chittagong port. But the underlying subtle message from Bangladesh is ‘thus far and no further’.

The principal troublemaker for India in Khaleda’s dispensation was her son Tarique Rahman who is now living in hiding in the UK and has been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in the same case as his mother — the Zia Charitable Trust corruption case — for misappropriation of funds. Tarique was a pastmaster at needling India when Khaleda was in the saddle, funneling secret funding and giving shelter to dreaded Indian separatists like Paresh Baruah.

What has queered the pitch for Khaleda further is the charge by Saudi authorities as part of the Crown Prince’s crusade against corruption that she was complicit in money-laundering and corruption, and that she and her sons had an investment of around $12 billion in malls and other infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia. What was funneled was money made through bribery and extortion. While Tarique is in the dock, equally into shady deals was Khaleda’s other son Arafat alias Koko, who died in January 2015, the Saudis say.

As things stand, after three days in detention, Khaleda can apply for bail and experts say the judge has the discretion to not bar her from contesting the December elections, although such a course appears unlikely.

If the Opposition leader is not barred, she could well pose a challenge to Hasina whose uninterrupted decade-long rule has made her unpopular with some sections of the populace. But the Saudi narrative could well compound the damage that has been done to her by the latest corruption case for which she has been hauled up by the special court.

The example of the Maldives is fresh in the minds of Indian policymakers where China has been able to expand its footprint because of India’s lack of an equation with President Abdulla Yameen after he took over from pro-India Mohamed Nasheed. Significantly, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Dhaka a few months ago, she made it a point to call on Khaleda.

As for India, it can be ill-afford to adopt the big-brotherly and patronizing attitude like it did with Nepal. The sensitivities of people have to be respected and handled with care.