Changing mood

The impressive performance of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Begum Khaleda Zia, in the recently held civic elections is an indicator of  the popular mood in the country.

The BNP almost swept the elections, winning all major cities. It should also be noted that the elections saw a very high voter turnout of about 80 per cent. Almost 60 per cent of the votes went to the BNP and the ruling  Awami League of prime minister Sheikh Hasina could secure only 40 per cent. Though the country has been torn by violence in recent months the elections were considered free and fair and so the results may be taken as representative of the mood of the people.

The results assume significance because Bangladesh is scheduled to have national elections by the end of this year or early next year. They show that the Awami League, which had won an emphatic victory last time, has lost a lot of support. The voter base in civic elections is much smaller than in a general election and the issues are also different. But the ruling party has lost in areas where it was strong in the last elections. It is an alliance between the BNP and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami that worked against the Awami League in the civic polls.

The Jamaat has been agitating violently against the verdicts, including death sentences to some of its leaders, of the  special tribunals which judged the crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence. The BNP, which has Islamist sympathies, has supported the agitation. The death of 1,100 people in the collapse of a building near Dhaka, which housed a textile manufacturing unit, two months ago also worked against the Awami League. There was  perhaps a general anti-incumbency sentiment also at work.

The Awami League has to do much  in the coming months to recover the ground it may have lost. From India’s point of view, a resurgence of the BNP is a matter of concern. Sheikh Hasina has been  friendly to India, but Begum Khaleda Zia has taken a hostile position  and even encouraged anti-India activities from Bangladesh. 

While India cannot in any way influence elections in Bangladesh, it can strengthen Sheikh Hasina’s hands by expeditiously settling the bilateral  disputes which are likely to be electoral issues.

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