Monday, January 6, 2014

Steadfast, Bangladesh

The first round of general elections in the tiny country of Bangladesh presents some worrying conditions for democracy in South Asia. Even as the ruling Awami League picked up a majority of seats in the first round, the opposition BNP continued with its boycott of the elections, in protest against scrapping of the system of keeping a caretaker government to oversee elections. Whatever the result, a one-sided election like this cannot be seen as legitimate and the country will probably have to go through another election very soon.

From an Indian perspective, the idea of a caretaker government is quite bizarre, because of constitutional measures built-in to ensure free and fair elections irrespective of which government is in power. That, along with nearly 70 years of a democratic tradition of governments in the final leg not resorting to any measures that could become the responsibility of the next. But in smaller, younger democracies, this might not be the case and the idea of a caretaker government seems appealing. On that account, PM Hasina's move to scrap the system seems poorly thought out and the BNP does have legitimate concerns over the fairness of the election.

However, all said and done, even Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD contested the last by-elections despite the fact that the ruling quasi-military regime had not created a truly civilian regime by amending the Constitution. The idea is simple: participating in an election, however flawed they potentially are, does not provide legitimacy to an undemocratic setup. Elections are not ends of democracy, they are but one of many means. The BNP's irresponsible boycott and ensuing violence will not be any sort of moral victory to either side, it will be but a catalyst to push the country further and further into chaos.

For India, which saw a period of unprecedented growth in Indo-Bangladesh relations, but where India is still seen as the great, meddling hegemon, the violence and uncertainty augur badly, especially for our Northeastern states that badly require transit routes through Bangladesh for delivering key components for infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, given the electoral season in India, there will be little done on this front till a Lok Sabha is elected in May. Till then, one can only hope for Bangladesh to remain on the path of democracy. 

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