Bangladesh and turbulence go together. The young Islamic nation was born out of its 1971 War of Liberation. But, turmoil continues to this day. Bangladeshis are protesting against a host of hassles. Their protests paved the way for a mass rally on 10 December. The rally ended in bloody violence. The protests are bad news for Bangladesh and its neighbourhood.

Bad news because the protests are shaking the foundations of the 75-yearold prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh Awami League government. Most protesters are from Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the nation’s principal opposition. This is an ominous alarm and worry for Hasina. The protesters’ rants against rises in the prices of fuel, food and other essentials are threats to Hasina’s government. Energy shortages and power cuts are more fuel to the unrest.

All-Time High Anti-Incumbency

A country where unrest has marked most of its five-decade existence may not find anything new in a stir. Yet, Bangladesh is convulsing for a variety of reasons. The protesters want Hasina to resign.  They want the parliament dissolved and general elections held much before the scheduled December 2023 date, under a neutral caretaker government. Anti-incumbency against Hasina is at an all-time high. Hasina has been the prime minister since 2009. She bagged a record third consecutive term in the 2018 general elections, which were punctuated by widespread violence and ballot-rigging.

As if this is not enough, the smallish South Asian nation (0.15m sq km) and the second largest economy in South Asia (USD 1.36 trillion) is sure to become unsettled now by this stir. Opposition BNP poured tens of thousands of its backers on capital Dhaka. Their protests are set to end in a political revolution. The party’s prime-mover is BNP chief Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister and wife of assassinated former prime minister Ziaur Rahman.

Degrading into a Personal Duel

Hasina is not taking the protests lying down either. She is cracking hard on the agitators, during and ahead of the protests. Yet, the protesters are not backing down and the stir is snowballing by the day. The involvement of Khaleda is giving the protests a personal-political hue. Inevitably, the protests have degraded into a duel between Hasina and Khaleda. The latter is demanding corruption cases against her and her son be withdrawn too.

The corruption cases relate to charges of misappropriation of State funds by two Ziaur Rahman trusts. Then, Khaleda was convicted and jailed for the offence.  Khaleda protagonists scream the cases are trumped up charges and politically motivated. They claim nearly 0.2m fabricated legal cases have been filed against the party members, 600 kidnapped and thousands slayed in extra-judicial killings to date.

Dissent-Intolerant Authoritarian

Khaleda’s jail term does not mean Hasina has an unblemished past. Hasina’s role in the unrest during national elections and electoral malpractices has been well-documented. Hasina is viewed by political observers as authoritarian for her intolerance towards dissent. They say, under her reign, special forces, styled ‘The Rapid Action Battalions’, doubled up as death squads.

These are not wild accusations either. Published reports show Hasina bundled more than 2,000 into detention cells during last two years. The arrested were booked under the dreaded Digital Security Act. Hasina misused this Act to round up journalist-dissenters, activist-crusaders and opposition-sympathisers.  Such was the global outrage, the United Nations did issue strictures against the Act and described Hasina’s excesses as “draconian punishments for a wide range of vaguely defined acts.”

A Danger to Human Rights

The global condemnation has added human rights ramifications to the current stir. Rights activists and independent political observers say Hasina is a danger to human rights in Bangladesh. The charge assumes ominous proportions as Hasina is no average Bangladeshi. She is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation’s liberator and founder-prime minister.

Yet, Hasina detained thousands of BNP men before the Dhaka rally on 10 December. A greater outrage was to visit later. Hasina’s police fired on the unarmed BNP protesters in the rally. Enraged, non-partisan media men went on to pillory Hasina for the deployment of 30,000-odd law-enforcers in Dhaka, with the sole aim of obstructing the protesters.

The Uninspiring Growth Story

Protesters say they will not yield, come what may. They have non-political reasons as well to rise against Hasina. A dire economic downturn is battering the once fast-growing Asian economy. Earlier, the World Bank had described Bangladesh as an “inspiring story of growth” in terms of rapid poverty reduction and high per-capita income growth. The Bank had praised the Islamic nation for stealing a march ahead of its heavyweight Indian neighbour. These praises are history now and do not mean much.

The reality on the ground is stark. Readymade garments account for more than 80 per cent of Bangladesh exports. The exports are on downslide and the economy has no cushion against global shocks. Plus, high energy prices are eating into exports. With parallel exchange rates, opaque reserves data and capped interest rates, the economic debacle could not have come at a worse time for Hasina.,the%20US%20and%20European%20countries.

Taka Set to Depreciate Further

Helpless, the Hasina government did opt for currency devaluation against the American Dollar. This did not help the exports and forex reserves continue to fall. Against last year’s high of USD 45.5b, the reserves have plummeted to a measly low of USD 26.3b. This is barely adequate to pay for three months’ imports. Nowhere to go, Bangladesh had to knock on the doors of the International Monetary Fund for a USD 4.5b assistance.

Alarmed, economists fear Taka, the Bangladeshi currency, is set to depreciate further against the USD. When this happens, foreign remittances, the largest source of forex for Bangladesh, will dry up. These grim realisations are adding more fuel to the protest-fire.

In a kneejerk reaction, Hasina jacked fuel prices by 40 to 50 per cent across the board in August. Bad luck for her, the move boomeranged. The hike had a cascading effect on prices of basic essentials, rendering them 25 per cent more expensive. This too is a provocation for the protests.

Stories of Unfettered Cronyism

Viewed through a political prism, the protests are sure to help the long-ignored BNP. The neglected party will now get an opportunity to bounce back into active electoral politics. Reason why BNP is busy exploiting this god-sent gift by trying to cash in on the frustration over soaring prices.

As protests continue to buffet the Hasina administration, reports of rampant corruption in the country’s banking system and non-stop capital flights caused by Awami Leaguers are gaining credence on social media platforms. Stories of unfettered cronyism under Hasina are angering the underprivileged among Bangladeshis to no end.

An Outlier Among Nations

At the end of it all, Bangladeshis realise they have been pushed to the edge of an economic precipice. With no economic growth, no free speech and no freedom to protest, they are now on the streets. Similar protests in many other countries have become their inspiration.

Geopolitically too, Hasina finds herself between a rock and a hard place. Critics say she has reduced Bangladesh to an outlier among nations. The country was pro-United States for long. However, of late, Hasina has been leaning on China, as the dragon pumps mammoth funds into mega infrastructure projects in Bangladesh. This pro-China orientation is hurting Hasina. Khaleda is sure to exploit this politically in the days to come. Her party will not the miss the opportunity to accuse Hasina of selling the country to the communists.

In Conclusion

The situation can get worse for Hasina. Perceptions of the United States and the Biden administration are turning negative, thanks to the ongoing protests. America is not sympathetic to Hasina’s high-handedness and brutal crackdowns on protesters. Plus, Hasina’s tilt towards the dragon is only making matters worse for her and her government.

This is a fast-developing scenario. Domestic politics in Bangladesh is in the danger of degrading into an ugly America versus China spat. Such a spat does not augur well for Bangladesh. On a final reckoning, Hasina, the daughter of its democratic founder, may end up destroying democracy in Bangladesh. No irony could be crueller than this.