Gowher Rizvi speaks to WION in Dhaka. Photograph: (WION)
International Affairs Adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina talks to WION on elections, bilateral trade, IS and more
In terms of geographical area the country is small but its people, progress and position make Bangladesh a key interest for many geopolitical ambitions of the United States, India, China and Russia.
The country's largest political opposition accuses the ruling party of systematically crippling democracy in the country and a terrorist attack last year has posed concerns about Islamic Sate's footprints in the country. WION’s Bangladesh Bureau Chief Saad Hammadi spoke to Gowher Rizvi, the International Affairs Adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on Bangladesh’s political and strategic ambitions
SH: Dr Rizvi, to begin with, the present government has come through a very tumultuous period and without any significant contest. The government has recently chosen a chief election commissioner whose neutrality has been questioned by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
GR: Let me first question your statement about tumultuous time. Election was due in 2013 under the provision of the constitution. There is no room or scope for delaying the elections because parliament comes to an end on a preset day at the end of five years. The election had to be held. The BNP chose to boycott the election on an allegation that the elections would be unfair. In the event the elections were not unfair and BNP had a hard time explaining why they made such a call. The result of that is BNP has been for the last three and half years in complete political wilderness. They want to come back. They say the election commission is unfair. They have contested numerous elections. They have contested municipal corporation elections, have won sizeable number of seats, they have contested in the local union parishad, have won considerable part, they recently contested in the Narayanganj mayor’s election, they were unsuccessful in a completely open and fair election, which even BNP leaders themselves acknowledged was a clean election. So for them to go on saying that elections are unfair or the new election commission is, what does it mean to say that the election commission is not fair? Is there any individual in that commission who is incompetent, who is openly anti-BNP? These are highly professional people with eminent, impeccable background experience. Why try to impugn their integrity even before the first ballot has been held? A wise way is to hold your breath, see how things go. Yes, if they want to boycott the elections they are welcome to boycott the elections. Elections will happen because it is a constitutional requirement. When the time comes elections will be held with or without them. The people supported the government. People did not challenge the government after the last elections. On the other hand peace and stability was restored in the country. And even though recently we were challenged by terrorism but because of the people’s mandate behind the government, we have been able to fight this terrorism with a very firm hand. I am really surprised that we should swallow or accept BNP’s narrative of events and things.
SH: BNP cannot find confidence in the new chief election commissioner because of a fallout the party had with him during its tenure in the government, whereby he was made an officer on special duty or an officer without duty. The party, therefore, has doubts about his neutrality. Now that does not bode well for a fair election. What do you have to say to that?
GR: You need to see the reason why he was made an officer on special duty. Had he committed some irregularities? Was he corrupt? Was he inefficient? If he was so, he should have been removed from the service? He should have been retired from the service. That was not done. On investigation, it was found that often as it happens it was done at somebody’s whim. The government after reviewing his files restored him back and gave him an appointment for there was no reason in the first place to have made him an officer on special duty. For that reason, an officer with 30 plus years of impeccable service should be deemed unfit, defies imagination.
SH: BNP is still one of the main oppositions or so to speak one of the largest political parties other than the ruling party. When it is raising this question, how much longer does the government feel it can continue with the current policy where oppositions like BNP say that they have no voice?
GR: The government organised an election, won the election, which BNP boycotted. People have accepted the outcome of that election and government enjoys complete legitimacy. We are constitution-bound to hold the election exactly before the day this current parliament expires. This election will be held. Now it is for BNP to decide whether they want to contest or not. One thing is absolutely clear, that elections will not be held under unelected caretaker government. A democratic government cannot be elected under an unelected caretaker government. This is logically obvious and the court has also said that caretaker government is both unconstitutional and undemocratic. So the question of creating an unelected caretaker government does not arise. We have offered, as we did last time, an interim transition government during the period of election. Because the government has to be constituted from amongst elected members of parliament, that’s our constitution, prime minister opened up this to all the parties and brought in representatives from different parties. BNP refused to come in and it stayed out of the elections. In the next election BNP has got itself into a corner. Because there are no elected BNP leaders in parliament, there is no way they can expect to be a part of the interim transitional government. My point is, and I say this with deep respect to the leaders of BNP party that they must accept the constitution. We have this constitutionally mandated institution to conduct elections. There is a very vigorous print and electronic media, there are national and international observers who will come and look at the elections. If there are any anomalies these will not go unreported. And if the election is really rigged people may not accept it as indeed it happened in 1996, BNP conducted the election, it was so badly rigged that people rejected that election.
SH: The international community also raised questions about the fairness of the 2014 elections in Bangladesh.
GR: Let us again be very careful. Nobody questioned the fairness of the election. I will respond to this at two levels. Please understand that this is a national election. We may have views about the US election. We do not express those opinions because it is for the people of the United States whom they choose. Outsiders should not have opinions about our election. The only people whose opinion matters are the voters. As I said earlier, they have accepted the election. So where is the unfairness? Unfairness could have been proven if BNP had participated and there had been rigging. BNP did not participate, there was no evidence of rigging, so I really think there is sometimes a wisdom in knowing that a mistake was made. You talk to many members of BNP party and the mass, they will all tell you that boycotting that election was a huge mistake. It has cost the party dearly and it is left without a voice not because anybody has denied or squeezed them but because of a mistaken choice made by its leader.
SH: Let’s now go into Bangladesh’s foreign policy. Bangladesh has reached a major strategic partnership with China more than any other country. The partnership is also viewed as China's ambition to make its foray into the Bay of Bengal, which may not be very pleasing news for India. Does Bangladesh see China as a convenient leverage against India?
GR: We have extremely close, cordial, good relations with China. I don’t know where the word strategic partnership with China has arrived. The other important thing to note is, we have exceptionally close cordial relations with India. And the third point that is equally important to know, both China and India have encouraged us to have cordial relations with the other. What is important to India and China? Neither India nor China wishes to dominate Bangladesh. What is in their best interest is a politically stable, prosperous Bangladesh. We are not aligned to anybody. There is absolutely no question of being aligned to anybody. Good relations, yes. Big market, yes. A lot of development projects and investments, yes. Both sides are doing that. It is absolutely a mistaken thing to believe that Bangladesh has tilted to China or any such thing. We have fine, cordial relations with both and I believe there has not been any such suggestion by any party that we have tilted to one side or the other. We made connectivity a central part of our policy. Bangladesh is located in such a place that it connects South Asia to South East Asia and East Asia. For us connectivity in every way is most important. Why is it wrong? Isn’t BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) an agreed part of both India and China, which also connects the four countries? We have no reasons to align ourselves with anybody but we have every reason in our national interest to maintain good relations with all our neighbours including Myanmar. Despite the fact that we have difficulties with Myanmar over Rohingyas, we are constantly endeavouring to make efforts to improve relations. We have established connectivity with Nepal, with Bhutan and with India. We have unlimited duty-free access to Indian market. Our economy is fast expanding. Bangladesh is becoming a rapidly growing market for exporters of other countries. In these circumstances why should anybody venture to think that we should change our policy and become aligned to one or the other? Bangabandhu had always maintained and insisted that we should be friends to all. There is no need for us to malign one or the other.
SH: We understand Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is due to make her first state visit to India after Narendra Modi took over as the Indian prime minister. Bilateral trade appears to be heavily tilted in favour of India and there appears to be stumbling blocks on parts of the water sharing of Teesta with India. What should be expected from her trip?
GR: Let’s start with bilateral trade. You have made an issue of trade imbalance with India. You did not mention that the trade imbalance with China is much greater. Nor did you mention that we have a huge trade balance in favour with the United States or with Europe. Bilateral trade balance or imbalance means very little. What is important is do you have an overall balance of trade or not? People buy and sell in markets, which are most favourable. With some you will sell more, from some you will buy more. But that’s not the end of the story. In the last two years our export to India has moved from under $250 million to $900 million. That is a move in the positive direction. Not only that, we are encouraging Indian investors to come in Bangladesh, manufacture things, which are in demand in Indian market so that it could be exported from here and gradually it will create employment for our workers, create market for our goods in India and balance. That’s the way balanced economies function, not by picking up simply a question of adverse [balance of trade]. If you are going to talk about adverse, let’s look at it globally and globally we have a favourable balance of trade.
SH: Regarding Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, what can be expected out of her trip?
GR: These visits are very important for reviewing that state of our relationship. During every summit we lay out a roadmap, we make certain commitments, the two leaders postulate a vision. This is the time to take stock of how much has been achieved and what needs to be done more. Obviously, there are other important issues. We will obviously want to talk about Ganges barrage project that would be hugely beneficial to Bangladesh and to the people of India. We will press for and push for Teesta [water sharing pact], even though we understand there are difficulties on the Indian side. We have two lines of credit from India, first one for $1 billion and then a second one for $2 billion. We are now going to look into the possibilities of a third line of credit from India. Interesting thing about India and Bangladesh is we have a shared boundary, we have the advantage of proximity, we have a shared culture and language. Given all these things, it is mindboggling why it took for this prime minister to see the potentials and from 2009 onwards move it in such rapidity where extraordinary advantages have been gained. When our government came into power, there was huge shortage of power. There was constant blackout. There was huge opposition that you will not be allowed to buy power from India. We not only bought, now it is so commonplace, that nobody even talks about it. There was huge opposition to connectivity. It is now a routine affair and public can see the enormous benefit that this is bringing to us. The essential thing is a healthy cooperative relationship between the two countries, which ensures political stability by ensuring there is no terrorism in the region. It’s good for both countries. Also, we have a shared view of the world. We have similar aspirations. Both of the countries are struggling to eliminate poverty. Many of the issues that are faced in the two countries, global warming, ecological devastation, terrorism, trafficking of drugs, women and children, weapons, these can only be addressed jointly through cooperation. Therefore, to solve our problems, to create a poverty free Bangladesh, our cooperation with India is of immense importance. We would be foolish not to take advantage of this hugely win-win situation that already exists in our relationship.
SH: Bangladesh is lauded for coming back with a prompt response since the July café attack to thwart any security crisis. Globally ISIS seems to be losing grounds in its origin but they are spreading into Europe and the West. Some security analyst also point out that they would be look for footprints in South Asia as well. Bangladesh has witnessed radicalisation at the grassroots. Does the government have any plan to deal with this and if so how?
GR: You have seen and the world has seen in what spectacular manner we have managed to tackle the radicals. It was not simply tackled by force, by police action, RAB action. We were successful because the prime minister mobilised the whole country. Teachers, students, parents, village officials, district officials, all of them were mobilised. Everybody became a part. We made this whole thing very democratic. Today, no young man or a woman can dropout from school or college or disappear from their village without being noticed because whole country is aware. Parents have become much more aware of what their children are doing. We have made a societal effort to fight terrorism. Yes, they say when ISIS is thrown out of Iraq or Syria they will go to the other countries. We are on the lookout. When any of them arrive, they cannot just come here and mix with the population because everybody is on the watchout. The horror of the café attack was such that it united the people against terrorists and killers. It is people’s mobilisation, which is making sure that terrorism will not find a home in this country.
SH: But there are also Bangladeshis fighting in Iraq and Syria in the ranks of the Islamic State. How does one explain this?
GR: Well, you could ask the same question of Britain, Germany or United States. People of many countries have gone and joined but please note, not that Bangladeshis have gone there and joined in large number, but those of Bangladeshi origin who have actually gone, are in many cases British-born or American-born or European-born second generation people. How many people have actually gone directly from Bangladesh? Not more than handful. And even those who have gone from Bangladesh have gone via Malaysia, Australia or via a third country. So you can see, yes, some young men, possibly a woman did go directly from Bangladesh but most of them were not from Bangladesh. It is a problem where the youth have felt disillusioned and have been induced into believing that the other side has all those solutions to the problem. Don’t forget many of them who were disillusioned, who went there, pretty quickly realised that they have become victims of propaganda and have hastily returned home. Bangladesh is by tradition, by history a tolerant, liberal, Muslim society. We have a syncretic tradition of Islam, which borrows and imbibes its strengths from other religions. We celebrate each other’s festivals. We live and we coexist without knowing any religious differences. In a country like Bangladesh, it was truly difficult for such radicalisation to happen and when we did notice some radicalisation had happened we were all shocked. Shocked not because of the size of the radicalization, which was small, but the fact that it could happen in Bangladesh was outside our imagination.
SH: As you mention religion, a leading politician of your party has said that Islam will be removed as a State religion from the Constitution when the time comes. On the contrary, we learn that subjects in the country’s primary school curriculum have adopted content that gives a highly Islamic viewpoint, ignoring students from other religious backgrounds. How do you explain that?
GR: Let me first remind you that Bangladesh is a secular society. It is not an Islamic republic like Pakistan. Our constitution has made us secular, plural and multicultural. We have a huge diversity in our population. To say that it is an Islamic state or will not remain an Islamic state, I think it is playing with word. Our constitution, under the military had been amended to say that Islam is the state religion of Bangladesh. Nobody knows what that means. If you know what it means I’ll be glad to hear. But if you look at the next sentence in the constitution, it says other religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity have equal status. What does that mean? Is any religion being privileged? Now, yes, we are all worried about what we saw recently in the press that certain parts of the curriculum in the books have been changed. You will have also read in the newspaper, people who were responsible for the editorial content, have never agreed to these changes. That is why the government has instituted an inquiry and we will find out where that came from, how did it happen and we will take the necessary actions.
SH: We have seen more things unprecedented around us. It is past one month since the US administration has changed with President Donald Trump at the helm. He has made some major changes in the immigration policy and a trade preference for Bangladesh has been in the hanging. What does that make for the foreign policy of Bangladesh as regards the US is concerned?
GR: Let me say emphatically, Bangladesh-US relationship in the last seven-eight years has been deeper, broader, and more extensive than ever before. Like any two bilateral relationship, occasionally issues come up. These are resolved through discussions. We have no problems at all. Along with it, I confidently say that the election of President Trump or the return of Republican government would not in any significant way affect Bangladesh-US relations. Now you mention about the preferred access to American market. Let me remind you, United States never gave Bangladesh a preferred access to the American market. There is a thing called generalised system of preference (GSP), which accounts for 0.8 percent of our export to the United States. Less than one percent! This was not imposed by the current regime but by the previous regime. It was not because of any difficulties in our bilateral relationship, because they had certain concerns about our implementation of our commitment to the ILO and our own constitution, which guarantees certain rights to the labour. We hope GSP, which affects 0.8 percent of trade, is restored but even if it isn’t restored it is no big deal.