What began as a well-meaning environmental activist movement has become a full-blooded political one, with friends and enemies on both sides stretching beyond borders.
The arguments of the anti-Rampal lobby have firmly been grounded in emotive spaces from the beginning.
The National Oil and Gas Protection Committee name itself evokes a mission to protect national interests. What was once just an energy project has become a symbolic case to test the present government’s commitment to public sentiment, not just the environment. To this is the added anxiety about how free it is when dealing with India.
Indo-Bangla pressure point?
The Rampal project has already proven a major pressure on Indo-Bangla relations with casual speculation about a brow-beating India.
Considering the fact that the protests are led by the Left Front of sorts -- who have limited public clout -- one suspects that it was the issue itself that is seen as very sensitive rather than the protests.
The government seems to have felt obligated to go after the protesters.
The overzealous reaction by the government has raised questions about how independent Bangladesh is, or can be, when it comes to deciding such bilateral projects with India.
It might be useful to form a neutral body of scientists to actually explore the contentions regarding the Rampal project and help the government decide whether the project is too politically toxic
But Indian analysts say that after helping neutralise India’s North East insurgency by refusing sanctuary to activists, India feels indebted to Bangladesh and to Hasina. If Hasina goes back on Rampal, India will not push to ensure continued anti-insurgency support.
In that case, why the politically risky pursuit of defending Rampal?
Meanwhile, the hesitation of European investors in Indian Rampal contractors has been increasing, and some Scandinavian countries have already conveyed their reluctance to participate. The French are also not happy, and many other countries are not keen in an environmentally stigmatised project.
This is not because they care about the environment, but such a tag carries stigma which may affect share market value.
Already, Rampal has been red-flagged by many environmental groups internationally and the fall-out is now making association with it embarrassing.
But what sort of option does it leave open for Hasina now?
If she withdraws by herself she will be seen as weak for having bowed down to public pressure, and that could end up sending a signal to her political enemies that she wants to avoid.
Her main strategy is to appear strong and act from that position of strength. In that case, the protestors are a political construct, however small, so she wants to avoid being “flexible.” By giving approval to the anti-Rampal lobby, BNP has made the issue a matter of honour for the AL to stick it out.
As things heat up, and it becomes even more of a political-partisan issue, AL will not be enjoying this, particularly when the elections are approaching.
For a party that has shown it is ready to make any alliance as long as it is convenient, including with Hefazat -- a force that actually tried to topple her -- her refusal to be more flexible on Rampal seems odd.
Barring BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, she is not keen on a conflict course with any force. So why this stance on Rampal?
Will it affect voting?
Public dislike for the Rampal project is likely to grow stronger the longer this issue is allowed to fester. That dislike may well translate into votes for the opposition, and this vote is not from a small Qawmi Madrasa fringe but the larger national pool.
It is the mainstream vote, a part of the floating voters who decide every election result unless there is a massive wave. Exactly why AL is so inflexible on Rampal is becoming a bigger question than the project itself.
It’s possible that Hasina will not back down as long as her opponents have a political banner. It might be useful to form a neutral body of scientists to actually explore the contentions regarding the Rampal project and help the government decide whether the project is too politically toxic to go ahead with.
As the controversy becomes bigger than the project, Hasina will have to face tough decisions ahead, and they are going to be more political in nature than about energy production in an environmentally sensitive area.
Afsan Chowdhury is a multi-media journalist, historian, and litterateur.
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