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India Studies Institute

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India Studies Institute

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Last modified: Wednesday, December 3, 2008

IU professor selected as an observer in Bangladesh elections

With a population of 130 million, South Asian nation is one of the largest Muslim countries

Dec. 3, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The day before a historic election here in the United States, an Indiana University professor learned that he will be playing a role in another pivotal election.

Sumit Ganguly, director of the India Studies Institute, professor of political science and holder of the Rabindranath Tagore Professorship in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at IU, will be an official observer of parliamentary elections for the People's Republic of Bangladesh on Dec. 29.

The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), an organization chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, invited Ganguly to be among 36 election experts, regional specialists and political leaders from Asia, Europe and North America.

In late December, he will fly into Dhaka, the nation's capital, where he will undergo two days of orientation and training before traveling to his assignment.

"I've never done anything like this before. I have been an observer on my own of various elections, just because I was writing about them as a scholar," said Ganguly, a faculty member at IU since 2003.

Ganguly has written extensively on Bangladesh, a South Asian nation with a population of 130 million. Bangladesh is located with its southern edge on the Bay of Bengal, and it shares a short border to the extreme southeast with Burma. Otherwise, it is surrounded on the west, the north and the east by India. Its borders were established with the partition of Bengal and India in 1947, when the region became the eastern wing of the newly-formed Pakistan. It became an independent nation in 1971.

For the most part, Ganguly's interests are scholarly, but he also is from West Bengal, an Indian state, with which Bangladesh forms the ethno-linguistic region of Bengal.

"I have followed the politics very closely, and I speak and read the language, which gives me a substantial advantage over election observers," he said. "So there's a kind of personal element in all of this."

A military-backed caretaker regime suspended planned parliamentary elections in January 2007 in an effort to reform the political system and root out corruption. The regime pledged new democratic elections which are now being held.

"This is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, and at a time when our relations with the Muslim world are, at the least, problematic, we should pay attention," Ganguly said. "If this election goes off well, Bangladesh will be making a transition back to democracy.

"For all practical purposes, it has been under military rule," he added. "To the extent that the promotion of democracy still matters in American foreign policy, this is very important."

Bangladesh, which previously has had Islamic extremism within its borders, recently has seen the rise of a small number of such religious radical groups. While these groups don't have a significant constituency yet, they do represent a "disturbing trend" in the nation's politics, he said.

"For that reason, it's worth keeping a watchful eye on this country. I don't think these groups pose an imminent danger on anyone, other than the politics of Bangladesh and possibly India," he added.

Bangladesh's long-term stability will be affected by how its elections proceed, and it is important that they are seen as free and fair. NDI has observed more than 100 elections worldwide.

"If the elections are not free and fair, if there is evidence of electoral malfeasance or if there are attempts to influence the outcome of the elections through underhanded means, then I am afraid that Bangladesh will be in for a long spell of political instability," Ganguly concluded.