Updated: Meanwhile, over at The Economist, the party continues.

The poisonous politics of Bangladesh: Reversion to type

Banyan: In the name of the father

Favorite sub-heading: The Sheikh of things to come. Wish I had thought of that myself.

The storm created by the article in the Economist and some of its allegations have, by now, reverberated through Bangladesh’s blogosphere. A question that keeps arising is the motivation behind this article. A close scrutiny of the Economist article makes clear that this article marks a clear break in continuity from previous Economist articles, as well as the general editorial line that the Economist has adopted towards the successive anti-BNP governments that have in power in Bangladesh since 2007. This article has cast doubts on the general fairness of the 2008 election (“bags of Indian cash and advice”) and the entirely positive predictions made about granting transit to India (”Indian security corridor”). It has hinted that Hasina’s shenanigans are not going entirely unnoticed in the outside world (“Sheikh Hasina, who is becoming increasingly autocratic”). It has emphatically burst Hasina’s favorite claim about, in general, being more honest than the previous government (“Corruption flourishes at levels astonishing even by South Asian standards”), as well as her boasts that her dynasty is better than the Zia dynasty (“Mrs Zia’s family dynasty, also corrupt”). And certainly most gratingly for Hasina, the article comes right out and points out that her obsession with her father is starting to border on the abnormal (“Hasina is building a personality cult around her murdered father”).

What could lead to such a dramatic u-turn? Not just some well-placed leads or a momentary whim. This article is the forerunner of large things to come.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is visiting Bangladesh next month. The questions has been asked: why does he need to come to Bangladesh all of a sudden? Part of the answer may be that we are in one of those rare moments when an Indian Prime Minister needs his Bangladeshi counterpart’s help, and not the other way round.

2010 was a magical year for India, and for Singh. India set a record of sorts by hosting the heads of state of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, BJP continued its in-fighting and slide to irrelevance, and there were no clear challenges on the horizon. 2011 has seen a dramatic reversal of events. The 2G spectrum has seen the former telecom minister sent to jail. He has, in turn, implicated both Singh and Home Minister Chidambaram in the conspiracy. This scandal, its inept handling by the PMO, and the subsequent demands that the PMO be kept out of the ambit of the Lokpal bill, has irreversibly stained Singh’s image as a clean politician. The Supreme Court has finally instructed the police to inquire into vote-buying allegations regarding the no-confidence motion brought after the nuclear deal with the US. All of these present potent challenges to the government.

Singh has also been weakened by a coterie of senior ministers who have been leading the charge to bring Rahul Gandhi to the forefront. While the young Gandhi has been an abject failure in his mission of reviving his party in the Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar, the full scope of the perils facing his party and his leadership will only be apparent when (not if) Congress loses the next election. However, Congress is now a reflexively dynastic party, and Singh has proved to be ineffective in keeping his council of ministers under control and prevent factionalism by those using Rahul’s name.

In this circumstance, Singh’s upcoming trip to Bangladesh represents the equivalent of the Indian cricket team making a tour of Holland. The Bangladeshi government will be fawning and servile, all demands will be met, photo opportunities will abound, and Singh can bask in the glow of taming a country where one in four individualis an ISI stooge.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that this article in the Economist is an effort by the anti-Singh faction in the UPA government to pre-emptively tarnish any of the gains that may accrue to him from the Bangladesh visit and further solidify his status as lame-duck prime minister. If we hypothetically assume for a second that bags of cash did change hands prior to the 2008 election, the receiver, Sheikh Hasina, would probably not divulge too many details. But the person giving the cash could. Coincidentally, in the absence of Sonia Gandhi for her mystery surgery, the four-person team which is in charge has not included Pranab Mukherjee, the senior-most Congress minister in the cabinet. It has included A. K. Anthony, the second-most senior Congress minister.

India has never handled dynastic transitions particularly well. The upcoming one promises to have enough drama to rival Mughal-e-Azam. But unlike past instances, Bengal will hopefully be spared direct involvement this time around. However, collateral damage, as evinced by the Economist article, may be unavoidable.

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