Dhaka, April 5, 2014 (Alochonaa): Nations surrounded by big neighbors often cannot deny their impact entirely. The recent territorial feud between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimean Peninsula is a glaring example of this. Bangladesh sitting between two heavyweights – India and China- faces an intriguing challenge to balance its relationships with Beijing and Delhi. However India, which engulfs Bangladesh in three sides, has more leverage on Dhaka than any other nation has. This is the reason why India’s general election is of great interest in Dhaka. No significant change is expected to happen if the current ruling party, Congress returns to power. The political dynamics, however, may be shifted if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) turns out to be the victor, as the public poll forecasts.
But how will a possible BJP triumph impact Bangladesh’s national politics? India’s Congress-led coalition government openly backed the Bangladesh Awami League’s controversial return to power for a consecutive second term. The general election of Bangladesh held earlier in January was constitutionally legitimate; yet morally flawed. Oppositions, chiefly the BNP and its like-minded allies boycotted, what they termed, the farcical election. This resulted in an easy landslide triumph for Sheikh Hasina’s League as 153 seats were left uncontested.
Western nations including the United States, United Kingdom and Canada called for an all-party-election in which the people of Bangladesh could exercise their democratic rights. The drift between Delhi’s attitude and that of the West was apparent in rhetoric, too. “Constitutional obligations” was Delhi’s concern, contrary to the Western countries’ “inclusive election”. This continued even after the new government took office in Dhaka.
Apparently, no previous Indian governments have come to play a role as explicit as the present one did in Bangladesh’s domestic political context. Many political analysts believe, due to Congress’s historical ties with Awami League, Delhi may have turned a blind eye to Bangladesh’s contentious election. International organizations including The United Nations, The European Union, and The Commonwealth in addition to the U.S. and Russia refrained from sending their election observers to the January 5 election which a British parliamentarian later termed, “neither free nor fair”.
This is why Bangladesh’s principal opposition BNP is counting days. According to local media, former Prime Minister and BNP leader Khaleda Zia plans to visit Delhi if Narenda Modi forms the government. She is expected to hold talks with the BJP high echelons in a bid to clarifying her position, working toward a sound relationship. However, it is not certain how Modi’s government will orient vis-à-vis this. BJP is a Hindu nationalistic party whereas BNP, a center-right party, has political alliance with Bangladesh’s largest Islamist group- Jamaat- e- Islami.
Jamaat’s political credentials have been sanctioned by the jurisdiction before the national election, which some say is colored by political witch-hunt. It still remains a determinant in Bangladeshi political arena, nonetheless. Therefore, experts say BNP might rehabilitate its old allies as soon as it steps in the government. Conventional wisdom suggests that BJP might not be comfortable to work with such alignment in Dhaka. Besides, Khaleda Zia’s last government, which spanned both BJP and Congress reign, experimented with a “Go East” foreign policy that was frowned upon in Delhi. Complicated by other issues, Dhaka-Delhi relations were frozen during her last term.
This is exactly where Ms. Hasina’s leverage is. The icy relations between the two neighbors thawed as she got the wheels turning with regard to some of the pressing bilateral issues, namely- transit, extradition and security. During her reign, Bangladesh managed to become India’s largest trading partner in this region. Both countries are mulling over a trans-nations electricity grid while India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Company is awarded an exploration contract off the coast of Bangladesh. In essence, Indo-Bangladesh entente is at its peak in recent history.
Yet, the future may not be as smooth as it seems now. Addressing an election rally in the province of Assam, Narendra Modi accused the Congress-led government for eliminating rhinos to accommodate Bangladeshi settlers. “Aren’t rhinos the pride of Assam?”, Modi asked before quickly launching into his conspiracy. “I am making the allegation very seriously,” he said. “People sitting in the government…to save Bangladeshis…they are doing this conspiracy to kill rhinos so that the area becomes empty and Bangladeshis can be settled there.” Although it has yet to confirm what the Modi Government Bangladesh policy will be, Modi’s remarks are a matter of concern for Dhaka.
Besides, the nature of the Modi administration will be another factor. If BJP itself does well in securing more seats in the parliament, it will be in the advantageous position in crafting foreign policy of its preference. If not, the contributing parties may significantly affect the process. The water distribution treaty of the river Teesta, for example, could not be hammered during Indian Prime Minister Mr. Singh’s state visit to Dhaka due to the opposition mounted by Mamata Banarjee, chief minister of Indian province, West Bengal. Ms. Banarjee, along with other stubborn partner of future Modi government may thwart some of the unresolved bilateral issues from furthering. This in turn will put Hasina Government under pressure.
When this is the case, the BNP had better stop looking up to foreign blessings to achieve its political goals. Rather it should concentrate on crafting strategies that engage the Bangladeshi people to help ameliorate democracy in Bangladesh. At the same time, the Modi administration should remain objective not to repeat the legacy of Congress: meddling in the neighbor’s affairs.
Regardless of the party in power, Delhi requires a stable and cooperative administration in Dhaka in order to maintain the regional equilibrium of power. Taking this into account, BJP may not find any trouble if Hasina’s Awami League government vows to work with BJP the same way it did with Congress. And this seems to be more likely than the vice versa. Nevertheless, challenge lies ahead how much she can gain from Delhi with regard to solving matters critical to interest of Bangladesh. After all, a one-sided affair does not last long.
*Arafat Kabir is a Bangladesh based analyst of politics and international affairs. His writings have appeared in outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes.com, The Diplomat and International Policy Digest. Follow him in twitter @ArafatKabirUpol
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