India is too strategically powerful and too close a neighbour to play a partisan role in favouring any political party over another in Bangladesh

By every account, the January 5 election, Bangladesh’s 10th so far, was a low point for democracy. The boycott of the 18-member Opposition alliance meant half the seats Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) won were uncontested, and about half of the remainder were against unknown candidates with estimates of the turnout just 22-30% of the voting population. Ms. Hasina has now returned to a parliament that echoes only with her voice, but the voice is a hollow one, like the victory itself. Ms. Hasina may have won a three-fourths majority in the ‘Jatiyo Sangshad’, but three-fourths of her electorate didn’t vote. For her rival, Khaleda Zia, whose Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led the boycott, there are parallels to her own victory in February 1996, when Ms. Hasina boycotted the polls, until widespread protests forced a second election that Ms. Hasina won in June 1996. While it is significant that India has backed the polls, it is equally important to notice that the United States slammed them, saying it is “disappointed”, and the United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union have called for another poll at the earliest. Ms. Hasina has also come under much criticism for putting Ms. Zia under a virtual house arrest in the lead-up to the elections, which Ms. Zia described as the “death of democracy”.
India has done well to defend Bangladesh from the international onslaught and from the comments of human rights organisations that have followed. There are several reasons why Ms. Hasina had no alternative but to hold elections. To begin with, Bangladesh would have been headed for a constitutional crisis if they had not been held in January. Ms. Hasina’s decision to hold them without a caretaker government at the helm was, in fact, mandated by the Supreme Court. Secondly, Ms. Hasina can hardly be blamed if other parties chose to boycott. In 1992, terror-torn Punjab saw an election that was boycotted by all but one of the Akali parties, where the Congress’s Beant Singh was elected Chief Minister by winning just 9% of the potential electorate.