Khaleda Zia imprisonment augurs well for New Delhi, but India must handle Bangladesh with care

The conviction and rigorous imprisonment for five years of Bangladesh’s Opposition leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia by a Dhaka special court is cool comfort for India that has had a consistently happy relationship with her bête noire and current prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

It would be impolitic for the Narendra Modi government to say so in public, but that Hasina is the best bet for India is indisputable. Right since the days of Bangladesh's first prime minister. Mujibur Rahman when he and then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi enjoyed an excellent equation, New Delhi under various governments and Mujib’s daughter Hasina have had close ties. The thought of Khaleda returning to power in this December’s election had been worrying New Delhi since, by common perception, Khaleda’s two terms as prime minister — 1991-96 and 2001-06 — were years of Bangladesh’s unholy nexus with India’s northeastern separatists and of an undercurrent of strained relations with India .

 Khaleda Zia imprisonment augurs well for New Delhi, but India must handle Bangladesh with care

File image of Khaleda Zia. Reuters

By contrast, Hasina has been well-disposed towards India and has proved it by her actions.

With China assiduously wooing Bangladesh especially after Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh in 2016, and dramatically handed over a cheque for $26 billion to Hasina, Khaleda could well have taken the equation further with Beijing if she had returned to power. Now, it is on the cards that because of the conviction, Khaleda will be barred from contesting elections and Hasina’s reign will continue smoothly. Predictably, the Hasina regime will cold-shoulder Beijing beyond a point.

Xi followed his visit to Dhaka with the sale of two submarines from China and also allowed Chinese companies to build some infrastructure around the Chittagong port. But the underlying subtle message from Bangladesh is 'thus far and no further'.

The principal troublemaker for India in Khaleda's dispensation was her son Tarique Rahman who is now living in hiding in the UK and has been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in the same case as his mother — the Zia Charitable Trust corruption case — for misappropriation of funds. Tarique was a pastmaster at needling India when Khaleda was in the saddle, funnel;ing secret funding and giving shelter to dreaded Indian separatists like Paresh Baruah.

What has queered the pitch for Khaleda further is the charge by Saudi authorities as part of the Crown Prince’s crusade against corruption that she was complicit in money-laundering and corruption, and that she and her sons had an investment of around $12 billion in malls and other infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia. What was funnelled was money made through bribery and extortion. While Tarique is in the dock, equally into shady deals was Khaleda's other son Arafat alias Koko, who died in January 2015, the Saudis say.

As things stand, after three days in detention, Khaleda can apply for bail and experts say the judge has the discretion to not bar her from contesting the December elections, although such a course appears unlikely.

If the Opposition leader is not barred, she could well pose a challenge to Hasina whose uninterrupted decade-long rule has made her unpopular with some sections of the populace. But the Saudi narrative could well compound the damage that has been done to her by the latest corruption case for which she has been hauled up by the special court.

The example of the Maldives is fresh in the minds of Indian policymakers where China has been able to expand its footprint because of India’s lack of an equation with President Abdulla Yameen after he took over from pro-India Mohamed Nasheed. Significantly, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Dhaka a few months ago, she made it a point to call on Khaleda.

There indeed are few parallels of the animosity between Hasina and Khaleda. They are at dagger’s drawn. It was small wonder, therefore, when Hasina, who blames Khaleda for having incited violence against her party during 2013-15 said at a recent public rally, "The Throne of the Almighty Allah gets shaken when one carries out repression on people. Those who burnt people to death face such consequences. And that justice is being done."

History too has played a role in the bad blood between Hasina and Khaleda. While Hasina nurses a grudge against Khaleda for her husband’s purported role in her father Mujib's assassination, Khaleda blames Hasina for a role in her husband’s assassination. All in all, Khaleda looks to be on a sticky wicket. Not only does she have to contend with the current case, there are other cases in the pipeline too that could pin her down on corruption, bribery and perhaps even murder.

As for India, it can ill-afford to adopt the big-brotherly, patronising attitude that it did towards Nepal. The sensitivities of people have to be respected and handled with care.

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Updated Date: Feb 09, 2018 14:57:32 IST