On December 16, 1971, defeated commanding officer of the Pakistani armed forces Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi signed the Instrument of Surrender at Dhaka’s Ramna Race Course. Sitting like a patient predator beside him, lieutenant general Jagjit Singh Aurora, joint commander of the Indian and Bangladeshi forces, watched the ink dry on the historic document.
India had helped Bangladesh out of Pakistan’s clutches into freedom.

Exactly 47 years later as Bangladesh goes to polls on Sunday, December 30, India is not sure what it should help free Bangladesh from: A widely unpopular Sheikh Hasina government, or the possibility of a traditionally problematic Khaleda regime? An Awami League (AL) which is increasingly seen as corrupt, autocratic and arrogant, or a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which has traditionally been corrupt and hostile towards India? An AL which is brazenly flirting with China and dubious money, or a BNP which sleeps with the Islamist Jamaat and pings the ISI?

A fickle friend?

Hasina has been India’s best bet. She went after the 1971 war criminals and Islamists, presided over a period of undeniably rapid economic growth and development, and has been friendly with India and blunt about Pakistan’s policy of exporting terror in the neighbourhood.

But at home, she is believed to have allowed extensive corruption top down, surrounded herself with political amateurs and sycophants, and resorted to gratuitous use of force to quell dissent. In the last one year, smouldering public anger turned wildfire over seemingly mundane issues like reservations and road safety. 

Protesting little children were brutalised and an international photographer jailed over an interview by a paranoid government, rapidly pulling down the regime’s already sagging popularity. 

The more its image got smudged, the more desperate steps the Hasina government has taken. The same Hasina who determinedly hung ’71 war criminals, dismantled the Jamaat-run Islami Bank and hunted down killers of the Holey Artisan Bakery terror attack has also bowed to the mullahs of Hefazat-e-Islam and has now given about 30 Jamaat-leaning candidates tickets for the election, according to agencies.

China is believed to have pumped in 3,000 crore taka in the election as well, priming up mostly AL candidates. The benevolence of Chinese money lasts as long as its goods. The dragon quickly demands returns with disproportionate interest, as Pakistan and Sri Lanka know at their peril.

Most importantly, India and PM Narendra Modi’s image has taken a hit in Bangladesh as friend Hasina’s popularity kept slipping. Many see India as propping up a regime against people’s wishes.

Or a friendlier foe?

The BNP has always been closer to Pakistan. But this time around, its senior-most leaders have made overtures to India. Some of them have been openly hosted and regaled in New Delhi.

Sensing a surge in public support, Indian agencies are in touch with a number of BNP candidates who are relatively pro-India. But this is on a case-by-case basis, hedging for the distinct possibility of a regime change if a free and fair election happens.

But India loathes the possibility of a BNP regime where an emboldened Jamaat’s writ runs on the eastern front, and Rohingya terrorists and infiltrators alike find a free corridor from Myanmar to Bangladesh into India.

From Muhammad Yunus of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation which had training camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar to the Karachi-born Ata Ullah of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, Myanmar terrorist leaders have had deep links with Jamaat, sometimes even through marriage and family.

India does not want these groups to get oxygen from a Jamaat-friendly regime, besides a revival of Bangladesh’s own homegrown terror groups.

Also, many seniors in the Indian foreign office and intelligence establishment personally dislike Tarique Rahman, the flamboyant son of Zia who is in exile facing assassination attempt charges. With him, you get the ‘not-a-good-human-being’ feeling, they say.

They say when Hasina went to meet Zia after the latter had suffered a personal tragedy, Tarique’s instruction over a phone call stopped his mother mid-stairs from greet the PM. This led to a bitterness that hasn’t healed till date.

A third force?

Kamal Hossain, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s fellow freedom fighter and now the Jatiya Oikya Front chief, has got into an alliance with the BNP. He is a lawyer and who once had the gumption of accusing his colleague and friend Bangabandhu of “too much optimism…sometimes you may have put more faith in people than the situation demands”. Today, he accuses Mujibur Rahman’s daughter of much worse.

But he is 82 and not a grassroots politician. Former President Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s Jatiya Party (JP) is domestically seen as AL’s B-team. He is 88, and India sees him as prone to U-turns and without a clear succession plan.

Besides, India backing him too strongly might result in JP still falling short of majority but eating into AL’s votes, weakening Hasina further.

Most importantly, India doesn’t believe in a ‘Minus Two’ formula –– taking the two bibis, Hasina and Zia, out of the equation. Any alternative government will be weak to deal with Bangladesh’s considerable problems and may plunge the country into further chaos, and tempt the military to meddle again.

Who's India’s best bet?

Seven months before Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated, Indian spy chief Rameshwar Nath Kao had personally warned him about the plot. Bangabandhu had shrugged it off with a smile, "They are my own children; they won't harm me." 

His daughter Hasina has also ignored several caveats from India about her actions and growing unpopularity. India still stands firmly behind her, although wisely keeping a door open for any other emergent force in our tumultuous eastern neighbourhood.

The general feeling in Indian diplomatic circles seems to be “Hasina has to win, although we know how to handle things if BNP comes to power”. 

They admit that given how emotions — so crucial in an election — are running currently, the Opposition may sweep if free and fair elections are held.

They also believe the elections are unlikely to be above board. Ghosts will almost surely cast votes and also stop many from voting.

Will India send observers?

“No. We already have enough ‘observers’ in Bangladesh,” comes the smiling reply.