The development doesn’t portend well for the parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh, but no tears are being shed in New Delhi for former Bangladesh prime minister Khaleda Zia, who was sentenced to five years in jail for corruption on Thursday.
Zia heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which along with Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League, has dominated the Bangladeshi politics in what is popularly termed the “battle of the Begums”. Zia was first elected prime minister in 1991, and last served as her country’s head of government from 2001 to 2006.
After military-backed government ruled for a couple of years, Hasina won a landslide in 2008. Hasina was also the prime minister between 1996 and 2001. Zia has accused Hasina of being pro-India.
While Zia’s rule saw militant groups based in the northeast find shelter and succour in Bangladesh, Hasina-led governments have squeezed help to these groups. Hasina also tried to rein in the spread of radicalization in her country.
India-Bangladesh economic relations have also been on the upswing ever since Hasina won the 2008 general elections with a landslide. Trade has improved with Bangladeshi exports, particularly garments, finding duty free access in India.
New Delhi now supplies power to Bangladesh. It is building key projects in Bangladesh and connectivity has improved between the two countries. India-Bangladesh relations have never been as good as they have been since 2009.
The process started by former prime minister Manmohan Singh has been strengthened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, particularly when he shepherded the Land Boundary Agreement in the Indian Parliament, which won him much praise in Bangladesh. In 2014, Hasina and her party were re-elected practically unopposed with Zia’s BNP boycotting the elections.
The court case in which 72-year-old Zia has been sent to prison by Dhaka’s Special Court relates to embezzlement of 21 million taka (about $250,000) in foreign donations meant for Zia Orphanage Trust, named after her late husband Ziaur Rahman. The court order also sentenced Zia’s “fugitive” elder son and BNP’s senior vice president Tarique Rahman as he was tried in absentia.
The verdict could disqualify Zia from contesting elections. The general elections are scheduled for December. Zia’s counsel said they will challenge the court verdict in the High Court.
The court order may be good news for Awami League and Hasina, but it has the potential to throw Bangladesh in chaos. On Thursday, Zia’s supporters thronged the streets and clashed with the police. However, there is also the possibility that the BNP might split.
New Delhi, in all of this, is keeping a watchful eye on the events. It would hope that the Hasina government succeeds in keeping the peace.