New Delhi: Sheikh Hasina Wajed assumed office as Bangladesh’s new Prime Minister on Tuesday, sending the army back to the barracks and promising to uphold the democratic spirit that handed her Awami League-led coalition a landslide in 29 December elections.
It was an election watched closely in the capitals of South Asia, especially since the Bangladesh army had called off scheduled elections two years ago and installed a caretaker government led by chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed.
Good beginning: Hasina addresses supporters in Dhaka on 1 January. Munir Uz Zaman / AFP
India was especially keen that Hasina return to power, said an Indian diplomat who didn’t want to be named. India, which midwifed the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, maintains close links with the Awami League, the party founded by Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman, who led the campaign for the country’s creation from what had been East Pakistan.
Delhi believes that Hasina is “far more willing to deal with the twin problems of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism” that especially plagued Bangladesh during the regimes of Hasina’s rival, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the diplomat said.
This diplomat also said Hasina’s overwhelming mandate would make it easier for her to rule “without having to use the army as was done in the past.” However, he added that “no Bangladeshi government will go out of its way to antagonize the army.”
As the political situation within Pakistan, on India’s other flank, remained fragile, and the Pakistan army gradually returned to centre space, Delhi had been fretful that the Bangladesh army would not relinquish control of the caretaker government it had run for the last two years, a second Indian diplomat said.
In the event, Hasina, who along with her sister survived a midnight massacre on 15 August, 1975, in which her father and the rest of the family were murdered, and the Awami League-led coalition won at least two-thirds of 300 seats in parliament.
“The Pakistan army has always used jehad as an instrument of state policy,” said Wilson John, Pakistan expert with the Observer Research Foundation, noting that the army tended to assert itself especially when a weak civilian government—such as the one currently led by Asif Ali Zardari—is in power.
For example, John said, after the late November Mumbai attacks, the Pakistan army refused to allow Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to send its intelligence chief, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a serving army general, to Delhi for talks, effectively showing who was in control in Islamabad.
One year ago, the situation had been somewhat different, said a Pakistani security affairs expert on the phone from Islamabad. He didn’t want to be named.
After the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari’s wife, on 27 December, the Pakistan army, “sensing the enormous anger within the country, had sought to withdraw from the political space”, he said. Then president Pervez Musharraf “lost a great deal of goodwill and was forced to allow a free and fair election”.
“But as things have remained fragile on the political front, the Pakistan army has moved back to take control. It has always done that when it feels the country’s stability is threatened,” said the expert.
According to John, one main concern in Delhi pertains to the ability of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to infiltrate Bangladesh and use its territory to launch terrorist attacks in India.
But Deb Mukherjee, a former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, said that unlike in Pakistan, the Bangladesh army chief had voluntarily announced that the army would be returning to the barracks before the elections.
“The power of its own voice and its own vote has always been important to the Bengali, both Muslim and Hindu,” Mukherjee said. “In Pakistan, it is a completely different ball game. Pakistan was created for the benefit of a feudal few, and its army and bureaucracy has remained very powerful.”
“It is said that other nations have armies, but in Pakistan, the army has a country,” Mukherjee added.
A Bangladeshi army officer, who spoke over the phone from Dhaka and didn’t want to be named, conceded that the Bangladeshi army had remained very powerful, even after independence in 1971, since most senior officers had been trained in the Pakistan army.
“But over the last two decades or so, things have changed in Bangladesh,” the officer said. Javed Ahmed, a brother of army chief Moeen U. Ahmed, fought election from Begumganj and lost, “but no one has intervened from the army’s side on his behalf”, the officer said.
He noted that the army chief was a muktijodha, a Bengali term for a freedom fighter who fought on the side of rebel forces and against the Pakistan army in the 1971 war, and insisted that he understood common Bangladeshi resentment against the army playing a political role.
The Bangladeshi army officer, however, admitted there were “some moments of nervousness” within the army when it realized that Hasina’s party was likely to return to power, especially since the army chief himself had been appointed by her rival Zia, superseding 12 army officers.
“My respect for the military went up enormously when elections were held on time, especially since they wielded enormous power over the last two years as the power behind the caretaker government,” said Mahfuz Anam, editor of the English language daily Daily Star, on the phone from Dhaka.
In fact, Anam said, within these two years the Bangladeshi army created a comprehensive voters list, complete with photo identification, of nearly 81 million voters (of which 85% voted in the elections), besides undertaking a nationwide registration process in which every citizen got an identification card.
“The Bangladeshi army, accused of assassinating Mujib, had the image of being the handmaiden of the BNP. But what it has done in these two years doesn’t have too many parallels in the developing world. It has genuinely contributed to the strengthening of democracy in Bangladesh,” Anam said.