THE BLOG

The Day I Met Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

05/01/2014 00:03 GMT | Updated 05/03/2014 10:59 GMT

The day I met Sheikh Hasina, I thought for a fleeting moment she was one of my aunts. She smiled at me in that distinct, maternal manner I associate only with Bangladeshi women of a certain age; her silk sari wrapped neatly around her body, her hairline revealing no attempt to hide the greys.

When we spoke she displayed an interest in me that Bangladeshis reserve only for when they come across one of their own, predictably asking about my ancestral village and my grandfather's name and even offering to have a photo taken with her.

But the first sign that there was another facet to this embodiment of charm, this lady who would no doubt insist I stay for dinner if I were ever to visit her, was when the reporter I was accompanying probed her about the influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh at the time. She switched in an instant from an affable, softly spoken woman into a stateswoman of such steely ferocity that I needed a moment to register the transformation.

Without mincing her words, she resoundingly and unapologetically made it clear the plight of those fleeing Myanmar was not her responsibility and denied outright that they had been mistreated by her authorities, despite ample evidence to show this to be the case.

Her stance on foreigners in search of betterment reminded me instantly of another female prime minister, much closer to home, also known for her uncompromising attitude: The late Margaret Thatcher, who had infamously expressed her fear of Britain being 'swamped' by immigrants.

As a teenager in the eighties, Thatcher was the first political leader to enter into my consciousness, and my politics at the time were shaped largely as a reaction to her policies. Even now, all these years on, my abiding memory is of a woman whose personality was so formidable that it often seemed as if that alone was driving events in Britain at the time.

In those days I had barely heard of Sheikh Hasina, who was living in exile in India, let alone taken any interest in what was happening in Bangladesh. But in time, as I started absorb the goings-on in the land of my ancestors, I found myself comparing the leadership styles of these two women - and Hasina's nemesis, the opposition leader Khaleda Zia - who were, and still are, part of only a handful of women in history to lead a nation.

Notwithstanding the fact that Thatcher was twenty five years older than Hasina and was out of office by 1990, when Hasina had only completed one term as prime minister, and the fact that clearly the two women faced starkly different challenges, I discovered a number of traits that existed in both women that transcended their individual circumstances.

Thatcher's legacy of deregulation, privatisation, the poll tax and the miner's strike, devastating though they were for those who were impacted by them, seem to pale into insignificance compared to what Sheikh Hasina - whose entire family, including her parents and brothers were murdered in one go - is dealing with; a hugely overpopulated country gripped by poverty, vulnerable to natural disasters and rising sea levels and a history marred by coups, assassinations and on-going violent street protests.

Take the war crimes trials for example. The men in the dock are accused of committing numerous atrocities during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan, during the time when Thatcher was a cabinet minister in Britain. Most are senior members of the main religious party, Jamaat-i-Islami, prompting accusations that the court is politically motivated. One has already been executed and others are expected to meet the same fate.

It is well-known that Thatcher was not adverse tough penal sentences. She voted in favour of birching, a corporal punishment with a birch rod, and supported the retention for capital punishment. But would she really have tried to hang all the leaders of the opposition? It is of course impossible to speculate, but it is fair to say that while the Iron Lady was not known to go easy on anyone, she has never been accused of interfering with the judiciary or of corruption.

Then there are the elections, due to take place on Sunday. Sheikh Hasina has refused to install a caretaker government to oversee them, despite the fact that most Bangladeshis are in favour of one. As a result, the main opposition party the Bangladesh National Party, or BNP, has boycotted the elections and has been behind the recent nationwide shutdowns and strikes. In retaliation Sheikh Hasina's forces have been arresting and detained numerous senior BNP leaders, accusing them of inciting violence.

Thatcher never challenged the British electoral system, let alone tried to change it - perhaps because the elections were mostly in her favour - but even when she was finally ousted by her cabinet, she did not dispute the decision and simply left in tears.

While it is clearly not a like-for-like comparison, at the very least, as a British-Bangladeshi, following the politics of both countries, I am left in no doubt about just how vastly the definition of democracy differs between the developed and developing world, and how we in the West take its entrenched foundations for granted.

Thatcher was loathed by many and often accused of a adopting a dictatorial form of leadership. But Hasina's style takes power politics into a completely level. As Bangladesh descends into chaos, it seems she is hell-bent on destroying her enemies and staying in power, not matter what the cost.

I saw a flicker of this dogged determination the day I met her. Once the interview was over she was once again all smiles. But it was too late, I'd figured her out; this lady was clearly not for turning.