The Bangladesh parliamentary election results that were announced on New Year’s Eve delivered a one-sided win for the ruling Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, giving it 288 seats out of 299, with one result still pending. But instead of an electoral catharsis, a fresh standoff with the Opposition alliance looms as it alleges extensive booth-capturing and vote-stuffing. International media correspondents, including the BBC correspondent in Chittagong, have even confirmed some of the stories. Prime Minister Narendra Modi promptly congratulated Sheikh Hasina on her hat-trick victory. She has been in power since 2009 and has essentially remained India-friendly all through. But whatever her popularity, the result reminds one more of elections in Egypt or Russia, rather than in a vibrant democracy.
India is bending its basic principles to accommodate national interests as Sheikh Hasina has been an adroit operator in isolating militant Islamists and balancing foreign policy between India, a valued neighbour, and China, a powerful economic and infrastructure-building juggernaut. She has often taken decisions about closer cooperation with India that in the past were kept pending fearing a domestic backlash. But should India adopt differentiated standards on authoritarian rule in the Maldives or Sri Lanka or any other Saarc neighbour, compared to Bangladesh? All the major powers in the aftermath of the Second World War have confronted similar dilemmas. For instance, the United States, while shedding blood in Vietnam to defend Asia against Communism, simultaneously befriended sundry dictators in the Gulf region and Latin America. America’s wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt had reportedly silenced his secretary of state when he dubbed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza a “bastard”, with the quip that “yes, but he’s our bastard”.
In private, India needs to caution Sheikh Hasina that a similar bottling-up of opposition by her father, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had led to his assassination and a military coup in 1975. Begum Zia, founder of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), being in jail, the Opposition rallied behind the Jatiya Oikya Front, led by 82-year-old Kamal Hossain, a former Awami League member turned dissident. Many of their candidates say they withdrew from the fight as polling began due to blatant booth-capturing by the ruling party.
Foreign observers and correspondents have been noting the strange mix in Bangladesh of economic success and stifling of free speech and democratic mores. Sheikh Hasina’s success rests, besides material prosperity, on lifting millions from abject poverty, on her opponent BNP’s continued dalliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), even giving them tickets this time. People remember Jamaat-e-Islami’s disruptive role when it was in coalition with the BNP in Begum Zia’s government of 2001-06. Sheikh Hasina has shrewdly kept the public focus on their role as Pakistani collaborators in the Pakistan Army genocide in the pre-liberation period. JI leader Mir Quasem Ali was awarded the death penalty by an International Crimes Tribunal. This has indirectly kept alive India’s role in liberating Bangladesh, which the military dictatorships and the BNP had kept papered over.
The Narendra Modi government has persistently wooed Sheikh Hasina. The exchange of enclaves and straightening of the boundary was a long overdue step to eliminate a recurring irritant. Two issues may yet challenge India-Bangladesh relations in 2019. One is the BJP’s insistence that those excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, currently 40.07 lakh people out of which 30 lakhs have sought a review, would be deported. Bangladesh insists that there are no illegal Bangladeshis in India. The second is the Rohingya issue, as most of them must have crossed the India-Bangladesh border. Instead of putting pressure on Myanmar, jointly with Bangladesh, to make conditions conducive for their return, India cannot bully Bangladesh to take them back. With the Lok Sabha elections approaching and the BJP facing slippage in the Hindi belt, its focus is on the eastern states, particularly West Bengal, to add to the BJP tally. A NRC-type move in West Bengal to polarise the vote could well rile Bangladesh.
With domestic politics driving the BJP’s priorities, the question of whether Narendra Modi-the-statesman will stymie Narendra Modi-the-electoral-juggernaut remains moot.
Therefore, the next six months are unlikely to see great leaps in Indo-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh endorsed China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit. Several deals worth $21.5 billion were announced. The actual progress has been slow as Bangladesh realised that they were loans, not grants. The Karnaphuli Multi-Channel Tunnel to connect Chittagong to Cox’s Bazaar and thus linking the port to new economic zones in South Korea and China is under construction. Two China-made attack submarines commissioned in Chittagong port rang alarm bells in New Delhi. Bangladesh later signed a coordinated maritime patrol agreement with India called CORPAT. India also extended two soft loans — $1 billion in 2010 and $5 billion in 2017, the latter for defence equipment. Thus, so far there has been a deft balancing act between India and China.
But Sheikh Hasina has not endorsed forthrightly a trans-Bangladesh transit corridor for India for connectivity with its eastern periphery. Perhaps a new Indian government after mid-2019 would push the planned Padma river bridge, which is a prerequisite for the trans-Bangladesh Asian Highway, turning Bangladesh into a bridge between South Asia and Asean. In return, Bangladesh may seek India’s help to approve the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor which India is reluctant to endorse as it would cut across its sensitive eastern states. Bangladesh’s garment exports, a tremendous revenue earner and job creator, constitute 83 per cent of the country’s exports. With China looking to diversify its export partners, facing US trade sanctions, Bangladesh and India are attractive destinations.
To consolidate gains in India-Bangladesh relations, India has to be watchful but not paranoid about illegal immigrants like US President Donald Trump. A buoyant Bangladeshi economy is best guarantee that their people stay at home. Bangladesh beats India at many socio-economic indices. Using a friendly neighbour to play domestic politics is poor diplomacy, and perhaps even poorer politics. The next five months will show if the BJP realises that.
The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh...