Didi's hilsa with poll bone

Dhaka, March 4: A parley over Bangladesh's Chandpuri hilsa fish in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed's house put on the table Dhaka's chief concern about the fallout of the Shahbag upsurge: fear that the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia will boycott the general election and rob it of credibility.

Bangladesh is scheduled to hold elections at the end of the year.

Hasina invited President Pranab Mukherjee's wife Shuvra and four Indian MPs accompanying him to a quiet, unceremonial lunch at her home today after a member of the Indian delegation told her yesterday: "Didi, haven't tasted hilsa cooked by you in a long time."

Foreign minister Dipu Moni, who was within earshot of that conversation, immediately jumped at the idea and said: "Okay, I will have the fish delivered. Did you know that the best hilsa in Bangladesh is bred in my constituency (Chandpur)?"

The fish was delivered this morning and the lunch followed.

The President himself could not be invited because of protocol.

But his wife and the MPs ' Sitaram Yechury (CPM), Mukul Roy (Trinamul), Chandan Mitra (BJP) and Bhubaneshwar Kalita (Congress) did come. Over slices of fried fish and the popular mustard preparation, and in a language that each invitee spoke and understood well, conversation rolled.

Lurking in the mind of an Indian invitee was recent history, when the Awami League and its allies had boycotted the elections in 2007. The BNP government, which was in power till 2006, had not exhausted all the steps for a caretaker administration under which to hold the general election.

Likewise, last year, the Awami League government did away with the requirement of a caretaker ministry that would be in power for 90 days, leading to the general election. Immediately afterwards, the BNP protested, saying the elections would not be free and fair.

But the BNP's demand has now receded to the background since the Shahbag upsurge, the verdicts of a tribunal of death sentences to two Jamaat leaders (and more up for consideration) who have been found guilty of war crimes, and the countrywide violent protests by the Jamaat against the judgments. The BNP itself has called for a hartal tomorrow.

India's worry, as one politician said, was "that we may have a secular government in Dhaka but it needs to be credibly democratic".

The refusal of BNP chief Khaleda Zia to meet Mukherjee is being seen by some in the Indian delegation as more than a breach of protocol. They interpret it as a sign that Khaleda is getting so hardline as to recede into a non-negotiable position.

One Indian MP suggested Hasina find a bargaining chip with her. But that suggestion did not carry far, reinforcing the belief that in Bangladesh, only one of the two Begums can rule. The BNP chief has also come closer to her electoral ally, the Jamaat, which is stridently anti-Indian and has described the Shahbag protesters as "atheists" and "Indian agents".

The concern over the hawkish stand being increasingly taken by the BNP also echoed in a meeting that Hossein Muhammad Ershad, the former President of Bangladesh (1983-1990) and leader of the Jatiya Party ' the Awami League's ally ' had with President Mukherjee this morning.

After the meeting, Ershad said that Mukherjee favoured an election in which all political parties participated. Ershad said he also wanted the Bangladesh government to ensure "full participation".

The Jatiya Party itself will contest the elections, Ershad assured him. Ershad has suggested the formation of a multi-party committee to oversee the elections.

The crisis sparked off in late 2006 took two years and a spell of military rule to be resolved. It was only at the end of 2008 that the Awami League swept to power with a brute majority in the National Assembly.