For the last couple of years, Bangladesh has been a political black hole in South Asia. The usual raucous politics of Dhaka has remained in forced suspension while a sustained effort to reform and cleanup was being put into effect. The politicians were pushed aside in favour of a shadowy military junta supporting an equally indistinguishable set of civilian functionaries. This ruling group, holding that the prevailing system was irremediably corrupt, made strenuous efforts to recast it, striking deep into the political hierarchies that had dominated the public life of Bangladesh since its first emergence. But with all this, and despite the jailing and attempted exile of the two Prime Ministers who had ruled alternately for so many years, not to mention the effort to diminish their respective political parties, when elections could no longer be held back and as the polls beckoned, the political scene looked remarkably similar to what it had been before the army intervened. Once more two coalitions were in contest, led as before by Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda, one regarded as left-of-centre, the other to the right, but both bidding for the middle ground. As before, they were in a no-holds-barred struggle for the favours of the electors. Where the reform effort showed was in the determined and largely successful effort to avoid violence and to preclude electoral fraud, with voters' lists being drastically revised, and strict monitoring of the voting process by domestic as well as foreign observers. Some grumbling by the losing side apart, it is widely acknowledged that the elections were conducted according to proper democratic requirements. It is against this background that Sheikh Hasina's Awami League has swept the polls. Her victory is all the more stunning for being so unexpected: even as the voters were streaming into the booths, nobody was ready to predict the outcome, a tight contest being anticipated with an uncertain result. In the event, Sheikh Hasina has emulated the comprehensive victory achieved by her late father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who led Bangladesh to liberation and triumphed in the elections held in the first flush of independence. Sheikh Hasina has proved that her support has only grown stronger through adversity, and her re-emergence as the pre-eminent leader of her country is a major achievement. Before all else, she must receive the recognition and congratulations she so clearly merits. The clear-cut decision in her favour promises well for her country and offers prospects of stable and effective rule. It will also enhance Bangladesh's international standing, and that country is set to regain the voice it had lost in the ambiguities of military-dominated rule. Electoral victory is only the beginning: not so long ago Begum Khaleda was celebrating a victory of comparable proportion but it did not lead to successful governance. There were accusations of misrule on a vast scale, resulting eventually in military intervention and the suspension of democratic rule. Good governance has unhappily been in short supply in Bangladesh, as acknowledged by both main parties who promised in the run up to the election to put an end to the eternal disturbances and street demonstrations that had made effective rule virtually impossible. Now there is another chance: it will be a particular challenge for the new incumbents to restore faith in the governmental process itself. All over South Asia there is a temptation to try to solve problems on the streets and not in the legislative chamber, and Bangladesh has suffered as much, or more, than anyone else. Reversing the trend is a big test, given the bitter divisions between parties and groups. Bangladesh's election completes the virtuous democratic circle around India in its South Asian neighbourhood. This has been a notable feature of 2008: one by one, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives, and now Bangladesh, have successfully chosen an electoral path to deal with threatening internal political problems. Bhutan is another entrant to the democratic world, though in its case it was through an act of deliberate choice, not as a response to internal threats. This does not mean that major political problems have been all satisfactorily resolved through the expedient of the ballot - one has only to look at Pakistan to see how the army and security establishment is able to resist such directives from the civilian government as it considers unwelcome. It remains to be seen if the Bangladesh military will be self-denying enough to return to barracks and forsake all the forbidden fruits that control of the government apparatus bestows. One must hope it will resist the temptation to entrench itself in political affairs. A Bangladesh revived by the election can be expected to play a more significant part in regional affairs. It should not be forgotten that Bangladesh was the key mover of the SAARC concept and has been fertile in ideas for its further development. So long as there was uncertainty about the internal balance within the country, Bangladesh was unable to take its accustomed position close to the centre of the organization's activity. But that will doubtless change when the practised and active diplomats from Dhaka are able to take a fuller part in SAARC activities. Most important, for both the parties, is the impact of the electoral result on the bilateral India-Bangladesh relationship. Before the elections, India made it known that it was ready and willing to deal equally with whoever emerged victor. This is no more than what was expected, for India could hardly indicate a preference for either of the contending parties. But beneath the diplomatic niceties, it is quite likely that India's greater hope lay with Sheikh Hasina, so there should be considerable satisfaction in South Block at the turn of events. Particularly gratifying would be the rout of the fundamentalist party Jamaat-i-Islami allied to Begum Khaleda. The rise of fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh has become a considerable concern to India, so the wholesale rejection of the Jamaat will bode well for the future. It can be expected, too, that a proper effort to improve matters could now become possible. Sheikh Hasina has been regarded as more willing to expand ties with India than other leaders in her country, and she has been willing to follow politically challenging courses to achieve this end, most notably in taking initiative to resolve the Farakka dispute that had long poisoned bilateral relations. There is plenty to be done as she takes office: for reasons that are difficult to fathom, India and Bangladesh have failed to maintain the cordial relationship that their mutual interests should have made inevitable. There is no real cause of disharmony, political, economic or cultural, nothing that should not yield to rational discussion and effort. Yet they remain estranged friends and neither side seems inclined to make the attempt to remove the insubstantial issues that have become magnified into major impediments. It is time for a fresh start, and maybe the post-election scene will permit the necessary new initiatives. The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary