THE assessment of some of our foreign policy experts about the landslide victory of India’s National Democratic Alliance in the 2019 elections was interesting but difficult to grasp. One said that it would bring in a greater momentum in bilateral relations. Another said that Narendra Modi would now take a ‘proactive role’ in signing the Teesta deal and a third expert talked of ‘convergence’ and ‘divergence’ in a meaningless way. One expert was condescending and said that Bangladesh’s relations with India in a new term under Narendra Modi would depend on ‘how it [Bangladesh government] will exploit this situation.’ He appears to believe the directions of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations were for Bangladesh to set.
The experts seem to have missed a lot of the developments or the lack of it in Bangladesh-India bilateral relations since Bangladesh’s elections were held nearly five months ago to be so optimistic about Bangladesh-India relations under a new term of prime minister Narendra Modi. The only major exchange between the two countries in this long time has been the Indian prime minister’s message to the Bangladesh prime minister after she had led her party to a third consecutive term in the elections held on December 30, 2018. The Bangladesh foreign minister made a brief trip to New Delhi. It has not been explained properly in public why he undertook the trip and what was its outcome, letting many to believe that something was not right in Bangladesh-India relations.
A very few of our foreign policy experts have inquired into the reasons for the relative inactivity in Bangladesh-India relations in the months leading to the Indian elections. If they had, they would have found a few things that would have surprised them and, perhaps, subdued their enthusiasm. They would have found that New Delhi did not, as it had committed through its external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in November 2017, interfere in any way in the Bangladesh elections. Perhaps, New Delhi believed that the Awami League would return to power by any means necessary because it was a matter of its existence. The experts would have further found that the Awami League won the election with a largely home-grown strategy.
If they analysed further, they would also find that New Delhi committed a fundamental mistake in handling strategic affairs in relation to Bangladesh. It forgot that that strategic relationships do not allow vacuum, that if it vacated its position in its strategic relationship with Bangladesh even for a brief period, another power would fill the vacuum. The AL government had eagerly and expectantly waited for India’s help in the 2018 elections. It had sent out signals that it was getting impatient. Late in 2017, it had sent its foreign secretary to hold an unusual press conference in New Delhi where he announced that Bangladesh had decided to commit itself firmly to the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative being aware that the Indians opposed it strongly for strategic reasons. The Bangladesh government believed that it would jolt New Delhi to change its decision on the Bangladesh elections. The Indians took no note of Bangladesh’s impatience.
New Delhi realised the truth about power and vacuum equation but only after the Bangladesh elections had been held and the cabinet announced a week later. It has been common knowledge in Bangladesh since the Awami League came to power in January 2009 that New Delhi has been privy to such information as the formation of a new cabinet and in many cases the size and the composition of the cabinet. Most Bangladeshis believed that the commonly circulated knowledge was true and felt it was a national shame.
This time, the AL-led government fulfilled the people’s wish that India would not be so dominant in Bangladesh. It kept India in total darkness over the formation of the new Bangladesh cabinet. Twenty-seven ministers were dropped, many closely aligned with New Delhi and holding key portfolios. If that was bad news, the post-Bangladesh elections reality that New Delhi discovered in the power-vacuum equation was devastating. China has always been a close partner of the AL-led government. India accepted it believing that China would happily limit itself to economic and commercial spheres. New Delhi realised, to its consternation, that it was no longer holding the strategic position that it had held in Bangladesh by the way the Bangladesh cabinet was announced and, much worse, that China may have or was about to take that strategic position in Bangladesh.
China’s desire to position itself strategically in Bangladesh is too dangerous for India even to consider as possible. India helped Bangladesh to emerge as an independent state by way of dismembering Pakistan so that it would not have any defence-related worries on its eastern front that it could leave to a force such as the Border Security Force to take care while concentrating with all its attention for keeping nuclear-armed Pakistan at bay in the west. China’s strategic presence in Bangladesh or the possibility of it with its fragile seven sisters close by and its whole eastern border in the hands of the BSF will now become a nightmare for Narendra Modi when he sits in office for his second term and not taking his country’s relations with Bangladesh to newer heights.
The AL-led government went over to the Chinese side after the National Democratic Alliance led by Narendra Modi defeated the Congress in 2014. The AL government was afraid that the new government would not back it against international pressure over the way the elections were held in 2014 as the Congress would have and was, indeed, supporting till it lost power in May 2014. The Bangladesh prime minister went to Beijing without waiting to touch base with the NDA government of India. Bangladesh and China signed mostly memorandums of understandings worth more than $40 billion, many of significant strategic value that the Indians opposed. The Indians managed through visits of Narendra Modi in 2015 and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj in 2014 to Dhaka to encourage Dhaka to scrap the projects that New Delhi did not like. New Delhi then still had the ability to influence major decisions in Bangladesh.
The scene has changed significantly between 2014 and now. The Chinese have entered Bangladesh after the AL-led government felt betrayed by New Delhi’s decision over Bangladesh elections. Suddenly, the Chinese are everywhere in Dhaka, physically, in multitudes. The buzzword in Dhaka’s power corridors is now all about China and the infrastructural miracle it is set to bring to Bangladesh. And many ministers are already stating in public that soon Bangladesh will be at par with many western nations in economic development and countries in their list are, believe it or not, the United States, Canada and Singapore. Indians will have to muster all their diplomatic skills and more to, first, regain their strategic position in Bangladesh for a lot more than mere bilateral relations are at stake here and, second, dislodge China that seems to have stepped into or perhaps in the process of stepping into the strategic position vis-à-vis India that it vacated, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly, perhaps through overconfidence.
Notwithstanding the above, Bangladesh-India relations will see normal exchanges as the new government takes oath and a pumped-up Narendra Modi assumes office. But Bangladesh-India relations that was so hand-in-glove when the Congress was in power in 2009–2014 that continued somewhat subdued during the NDA’s 2014–2019 term may have, perhaps, seen its best years and may be looking forward to a period of uncertainty where a lot would depend on the way India succeeds or fails in regaining the strategic space it has yielded to China in Bangladesh recently.
Our foreign policy experts must also look at the impact of Indian elections on India itself. The Hindu nationalism card will now become much stronger that will leave India’s nearly 200 million Muslims in a state of fear and uncertainty and bring into play the divisive factors of region, religion, caste, rich and poor divide, et cetera. That, in turn, will create instability that is bound to affect all of India’s neighbour including Bangladesh. The spirits of Mahatma Gandhi, Pundit Nehru and their comrades who trumpeted the great Indian civilisation to the modern post-colonial era are restless wherever they are because the renewal of unadulterated and blatant Hindu nationalism through the recent Indian elections has come as the death knell of secularism and inclusiveness that they believed or propagated, and rightly, were the mantras for India’s future. The recent Indian elections have, in fact, resurrected the spirit of Nathuram Godse who had assassinated India’s Father of the Nation and was hanged for that crime.
London’s Guardian articulated these concerns in an editorial after the results of the elections had been announced under the heading: ‘Landslide bad for India’s soul’ and went on to write that ‘the world does not need another national populist leader who pursues a pro-business agenda while trading in fake news and treating minorities as second-class citizens.’ Our foreign policy experts would do themselves a world of good and Bangladesh too that badly needs their expertise if they tried to fathom the editorial’s references to India’s soul and Muslims being treated as second class citizens.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion