New Delhi: Free and fair elections are the bedrock of a vibrant liberal democracy. The United States and constituent countries of Western Europe are outraged that the Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin, sought to influence elections in them to bring such leaders and governments to power as would condone Russian expansionism in Central and Eastern Europe and turn a blind eye to Putin’s domestic authoritarianism. Question marks remain about the degree to which Russia influenced the election of president Donald Trump. If proved substantial, Trump could be impeached.

The West, generally, has wrestled with issues related to free and fair polls for decades with the single aim of making the outcome of liberal democracy as closely attuned to voter sensitivities and sensibilities as possible: hence the anger directed against Putin’s malfeasance. The record in the Indian subcontinent is rather more mixed. Before T. N. Seshan took charge of the Election Commission, rigged elections were the norm. Voter intimidation, proxy voting, booth capturing, etc, were common. Insofar as leaderships ordered poll fixing, Indira Gandhi was barred from holding office for six years by the Allahabad high court (later overturned by the Supreme Court) for electoral malpractices. The rigged 1987 election of Jammu and Kashmir sparked off insurgency in the state whose fires still rage.

Refusal to accept genuine election results led to the split between East and West Pakistan and the ultimate creation of Bangladesh. In refusing to recognize the poll-mandated national leadership of Mujibur Rehman, Z. A. Bhutto had as much blood on his hands in the Pakistan army genocide in East Pakistan as the army leadership itself. After the split of East from West Pakistan, Bhutto used the anti-military zeitgeist of the time to win untrammelled elected power and quickly became the new ununiformed dictator. He was soon to lose his arrogance and office and life through the machinations of another dictator, one in uniform, called Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, who Bhutto had mortally underrated as “my monkey general”.

If Bhutto and Indira Gandhi became dictatorial via elected office defining a perverse South Asian tradition (of which the latest example is Narendra Modi), Mujibur Rehman did not prove an exception either in his newly independent country. Within years of returning to Bangladesh from a Pakistani prison carrying the halo of an eastern George Washington, Rehman ruined the economy through statist measures, fuelled a destructive famine, set up the equivalent of a Gestapo-SS combine which was unleashed on the opposition, the free press and anyone else that dared to oppose his absolute rule, and finally proclaimed himself a fixed-term president with no intention to give up power. Although deeply regrettable, he paid a price like all autocrats do, being assassinated with his family bar two daughters who were overseas, one of who, Sheikh Hasina, has just returned to power for a fourth time.

And Hasina’s fourth term, won in rather dodgy circumstances, does nothing to erase the tainted South Asian tradition of turning elected leaders into dictators. India should be very circumspect about Hasina’s return. Although her regime has taken the sting out of anti-India armed movements, projects and policies encouraged by Pakistan and other adversaries, Bangladesh’s democratic balance nevertheless has been hit by the continuance of Sheikh Hasina’s rule. It is a universal law that the balance will be restored sooner than later, but the pendulum will swing to the opposite extreme in the interim, and this should set alarm bells ringing for friends of Hasina, including India. Bangladesh has a history of political violence the same as Pakistan. The backlash against Hasina should not gather such pace and strength that it not only dislodges her from power accompanied by violence and bloodshed but destabilizes India in Bangladesh.

A rollercoaster politics in Bangladesh does not suit India even given the constraint that India cannot interfere in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. But temperance, balanced democratic politics, free and fair elections and regime-neutral friendliness and goodwill towards India are goals that New Delhi should pursue with discretion with Dacca. A rigged election provides no legitimacy or stability to national politics. And dictatorship is the very worst way to interpret a majority mandate. It starts the process of unravelling which cannot be stopped. There is a message here for India as well.