At around 5 p.m. each evening in Dhaka, as the setting sun melds with low-hanging smog to bathe the Bangladeshi capital in a tawny glow, Sheikh Hasina emerges from her official residence wrapped in an immaculate sari and sets off for a stroll around the manicured garden.
After a quick turn past pomelo trees and swing sets for her grandchildren, Bangladesh’s 76-year-old Prime Minister perches on the redbrick steps of an ornamental pond with fishing rod in hand and casts in a line—snaring a few moments of peace away from her desk as well as, with a bit of luck, one of the tasty catfish or chitala that skulk within. “The biggest fish I caught was 8 kg,” Hasina told me proudly as we peered into the gloomy depths. “Although I needed help to land it.”
Hasina’s regular fishing hobby is just one of several surprising revelations from TIME’s interview in early September for a new cover story. Hasina, in office since 2009 after an earlier term from 1996 to 2001, is the world’s longest-serving female head of government and has overseen a period of rapid growth in the nation of 170 million, which today is South Asia’s second-largest economy after India.
However, Bangladesh has also become more authoritarian under Hasina’s leadership, with voices critical of her Awami League party drowning in an estimated 4 million legal challenges. Khaleda Zia, two-time former premier and leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), sits gravely ill under house arrest on corruption charges that rights groups say are politically motivated.
In recent days, anti-government protests have once again erupted in the capital, leading to hundreds of arrests, police vehicles torched, and several deaths. The BNP—which boycotted votes in 2014 and 2018—is demanding Hasina hands power to a caretaker government to shepherd elections set for January, claiming there’s no chance of a fair ballot with her Awami League in charge.
Hasina and her critics each emphasize that, for better or worse, the fate of Bangladesh’s democracy is intertwined with her own.
Here are five takeaways from Hasina’s wide-ranging conversation with TIME.
1. Hasina doesn’t see the need to install a caretaker
Between 1996 and 2008, Bangladesh regularly used caretaker governments to steer elections and aid the transition from one government to another. However, a military-backed caretaker ended up clinging onto power for over a year from 2006 amid a political crisis, prompting the Awami League to abolish the convention through a constitutional amendment in 2011. Hasina sees no need to concede to BNP demands for a caretaker today.
“Under the BNP, elections were held in Bangladesh several times and every time was fraudulent and manipulated,” she says. “Now they are demanding a caretaker. And now they demand for democracy. But when there was a military ruler in this country, and every night there was a curfew, and the people had no right to speak, no right to vote, and suffered a lot, they didn’t want a caretaker government then.”
2. Hasina believes the BNP is a “terrorist party” that “doesn’t believe in democracy”
Hasina’s loathing of the BNP is bitter and visceral. She has memorized casualty figures stemming from alleged BNP-instigated violence and recites them unbidden. Asked about the BNP’s allegations of ongoing repression against their party, Hasina repeatedly brings up historical grievances.
“The BNP was formed by a military dictator who violated the Constitution and kept army-rule through guns,” she says. “They say there is no democracy. But when there was a military ruler ruling the country, was there democracy? Even Khaleda Zia ruled like a military dictator.”
3. Hasina still wants Bangladesh to join BRICS
Hasina has repeatedly talked up joining the BRICS grouping of emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—and attended August’s summit in Johannesburg as an observer. But while the bloc agreed to admit six new members, Bangladesh was conspicuously not among them. “If we get a chance, we will join,” she shrugs when asked about the snub.
In the end, existing members all championed their preferred neighbor except for India, which chose not to push for Bangladesh. Asked about her relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hasina says, “very good, they’re our next-door neighbor.” Still, Modi declined to have a bilateral meeting with Hasina in South Africa, and analysts believe that New Delhi feared having Bangladesh joining BRICS would boost the influence of de facto bloc leader China in Dhaka.
4. Hasina smarts from U.S. criticism of her human rights record
In May, the U.S. State Department unveiled “3C” visa restrictions on “any Bangladeshi individual believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process.” In response, Hasina told parliament that the U.S. was “trying to eliminate democracy” by engineering her ouster.
The U.S. has been concerned by Bangladesh’s authoritarian turn under Hasina for several years. In 2021, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Bangladesh’s feared Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, elite police unit, which has been implicated in hundreds of extrajudicial disappearances, as well as torture and assault. It’s meddling that still grates Hasina. “They don’t need to put sanctions,” she says bitterly. “If anybody from our law enforcement agencies commits any crime, we don’t let it go, we punish them.”
Still, recorded extrajudicial killings have plummeted every year since the sanctions were introduced.
5. Hasina believes developed nations should provide more help for climate crisis mitigation
Despite producing only 0.56% of global emissions, low-lying Bangladesh was ranked the seventh extreme disaster risk-prone country in the world per the Global Climate Risk Index 2021. Hasina has set about instilling climate resilience by building multipurpose cyclone and flood shelters, creating artificial mangroves in coastal areas, and training some 85,000 volunteers in natural disaster mitigation.
However, she says that developed countries that disproportionately caused the climate crisis need to do more to help their developing peers that disproportionately suffer from it. “Now they have developed, they can say many things and advise us,” she says. “But we also need to develop our country.”
Hasina has championed demands for developed countries to meet an existing pledge to provide the Global South $100 billion annually until 2025 for climate resilience. “All those countries who are really responsible for emissions, they contribute very little, they only give us advice,” she adds. “We receive big promises but not effective things.”
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Taylor Swift Is TIME's 2023 Person of the Year
- Meet the Nation Builders
- Why Cell Phone Reception Is Getting Worse
- Column: It's Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords
- Israeli Family Celebrates Release of Hostage Grandmother
- In a New Movie, Beyoncé Finds Freedom
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Write to Charlie Campbell at email@example.com