Popularity is a rare quality which begins to elude the rulers when they need it the most. Bangladesh Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina is in a similar situation. Her stock has shrunk at a time when she requires it badly. People had returned her with a sweeping majority. Yet they increasingly feel, three years after her being in power, that her non-governance, if not mis-governance, has only made their life miserable.
After staying in Bangladesh for five days I find that she has not only lost her sheen but also the trust she enjoyed once. People expected her to deliver but there is nothing they can recognise as her achievement. For example, she promised electricity and substantially supplied it at great cost by borrowing from overstretched banks. But people wanted to see large power stations to come up since their demand is ever rising. What India promised is yet nowhere in the horizon.
Alleviating poverty with limited resources is always a challenge, but she does not appear to be even trying to meet it. She looks content with whatever she has done and runs down the critics. “Cut electricity of those who complain about its shortage sitting in their air-conditioned rooms,” she said when newspapers and television networks pointed out about the shortage.
No doubt, Hasina has contained terrorism and there is a sense of relief that the nation is not at the mercy of fundamentalists like Bangla Bhai. Secularism is her commitment and she pursues it relentlessly. She has retrieved the ground her opponent, Khaleda Zia, president of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had lost, knowingly and purposely. The credit also goes to Hasina that anti-India sentiment which the BNP fostered has more or less disappeared. And she has taken unilateral steps like transit which gives quick access to India to its northeastern states.
But has New Delhi reciprocated to the extent she has gone worries even the pro-India elements? The loan offered is all tied with Indian imports and technical know-how. The border between the countries has not been demarcated and there is no move to transfer the enclaves which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to do during his visit to Dhaka a few weeks ago. (Assam is already up in arms on the enclaves).
The biggest disappointment with India is the denial of sharing of Teesta river water. They feel they lost it because of political wrangling between New Delhi and Kolkata. (West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who was on board on the formula of sharing the water changed her mind at the eleventh hour and appointed a River Commission to look into the matter). Some quarters believe that the Teesta water would eventually come just as the flow from the Farakka barrage did through the enlightened approach of the then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. Again it depends on Mamata because the Manmohan Singh government is too dependent on her Lok Sabha members for survival to put pressure on the Teesta issue.
The blow was somewhat losing its impact when the reported signing by India of a contract for building the Tipaimukh dam on the Barak river in Manipur, a northeastern state, came to light. It was a BBC story which lacked confirmation first but was later supported by other sources. The contract was signed by Delhi and the Manipur government on October 23, one month after Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka. What has hurt Bangladesh is the violation of understanding given by Delhi not to do anything that would affect Dhaka.
The explanation given by New Delhi after 72 hours is that the dam meant to check flooding will not divert water. This has not assuaged the feelings of Bangladeshis. That the dam may destroy the environment is a separate point of complaint. As many as 52 rivers from India flow into Bangladesh. I think that on the major ones New Delhi should give a clear understanding to Dhaka that they will not be in any way touched without consulting it.
The beleaguered Hasina has further lost prestige. Her efforts to befriend India have got rebuffed. There is no doubt that the Teesta water and Tipaimukh will cut into her votes when Bangladesh goes to polls two years later. The fallout will benefit Khaleda Zia who is sitting pretty and not issuing statement after statement as she did in the past. But are the Bangladeshis a shuttlecock to be tossed from one side to another—from Hasina to Khaleda?
They feel exasperated and helpless. They openly talk about the military takeover. Military too is far from happy by the capricious postings and transfers by the Hasina government. But the chances of any coup are very few. The military support to the caretaker government more than three years ago was of no avail. The armed forces could neither clean up the administration nor build up an alternative to the two leaders.
Friendship with India was a straw to which the people in Bangladesh have clung. Today they wonder if they have any future with India. China which is trying its best to woo the country is not to their liking because Beijing is neither democratic nor pluralistic, the two principles to which they have stuck since the founding of Bangladesh by Banga Bandhu Shaikh Mujib-ur Rahman. They would want to build their country according to their own genius.
Bangladesh, like India, is also reeking with corruption. And there too the nation has been appalled to find the top, the creamy layer, hobnobbing with the rulers for more concessions and more concealment of their misdeeds. Even the World Bank has threatened to withdraw its assistance for constructing the Padma Bridge fearing corruption. Things may yet sort out now that the Prime Minister’s office has taken the matter in its own hand.
Hasina bothers little because the haze of popularity has not yet awakened her to the reality. She believes that a few newspapers are tarnishing her good name. She does not realise that the papers’ circulation is in proportion to their credibility. They could not be leading papers if they had reported or interpreted the situation wrongly. But then, like the communists, she forgives the renegades but not critics.
Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.