Losing the plot

As Bangladesh enters a turbulent phase with the controversial general elections on January 5 and with continuing violence following the execution of Islamist leader Abdul Quader Mollah, New Delhi needs to pay special attention to its neighbour.

The fallout from continuing instability in Bangladesh will have significant implications for India and the larger South Asian region. Mollah had a key role in Jamaat-e-Islami which is an ally of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and this has underscored the explosive political tensions in Bangladesh between the ruling party, Awami League, and the opposition.

 BNP leader, Khaleda Zia had asked the government to shelve the elections, arguing that “it could be last nail to the coffin of democracy” and accusing her arch-rival prime minister Sheikh Hasina of “killing democracy to consolidate power forever.” More than half of the candidates in 300-seat Parliament were set to be elected unopposed in the absence of rival candidates as BNP and its allies, including fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, have decided to boycott the January 5 polls.

As tensions rise in Dhaka, New Delhi has had a rather weak hand to play given its inability to strengthen Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s hands. Though New Delhi has repeatedly signalled that India remains committed to an early solution on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river and the long-pending boundary issue, it has not been able to generate sufficient political consensus on these issues.  New Delhi has not been a great partner to Dhaka so far and by not signing the deals that matter most to Dhaka, it has alienated pro-India forces in the country. While the UPA government has not been able to take leadership on this critical bilateral relationship, the BJP had been playing petty politics with complete disregard for the larger national imperatives. 

India did make some initial strong overtures to the Hasina government. Pranab Mukherjee had visited Dhaka in 2010 as the then finance minister to mark the signing of a $1 billion loan deal, the largest line of credit received by Bangladesh under a single agreement. India’s Exim Bank had signed this line of credit agreement with Bangladesh’s economic relations division and the loan was to be used to develop railways and communications infrastructure in Bangladesh.This deal carried 1.75 per cent annual interest and would be repayable in 20 years, including a five-year grace period. It was offered during Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010. This was followed by the two countries signing a 35-year electricity transmission deal under which India will be exporting up to 500 mw of power to Bangladesh. Dhaka has also signed a $1.7 billion pact with the National Thermal Power Corporation for the construction of two coal-fired plants in southern Bangladesh.

Diplomatic failure 

Despite these initiatives India failed to build on the momentum provided by Hasina’s visit with its failure to implement two major bilateral agreements -- finalisation of land boundary demarcation and the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river. Bangladesh has been rightly upset at the slow pace in the implementation of these. Hasina has taken great political risk to put momentum back into bilateral ties. But there has been no serious attempt on India’s part to settle outstanding issues.

Bureaucratic inertia and lack of political will has prevented many of the deals from being followed through. Dhaka is seeking response to its demand for the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi products. India has failed to reciprocate Hasina’s overtures. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party has used the India-Bangladesh bonhomie under Hasina to attack the government for toeing India’s line. India-Bangladesh ties had reached their lowest ebb during the 2001-2006 tenure of the BNP government.

India has failed to capitalise on the propitious political circumstances in Bangladesh, damaging its credibility even further.  Friends are as temporary as enemies in international politics. Instead, it is a state’s national interests that determine its foreign policy. In the case of India and Bangladesh, these interests have been diverging for some years now, making this bilateral relationship susceptible to the domestic political narratives in New Delhi and Dhaka.

India is the central issue around which Bangladeshi political parties define their foreign policy agenda. This shouldn’t be a surprise given India’s size and geographic linkages. Over the years political parties opposing the Awami League have tended to define themselves in opposition to India, in effect portraying Awami League as India’s ‘stooge’. Moreover, radical Islamic groups have tried to buttress their own ‘Islamic identities’ by attacking India.

Ever since she came to power in December 2008, Sheikh Hasina has faced challenges from right-wing parties as well as the fundamentalist organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, which enjoy Pakistan’s support. These groups are united in undermining efforts to improve ties with New Delhi. The greatest challenge that Hasina overcame in her first year was the mutiny by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles, which erupted in February, 2009. It soon became clear that the mutineers were being instigated by supporters of the opposition led by the BNP and others connected to the Jamaat-e-Islami. India supported Hasina’s crackdown on the mutineers by sealing its borders with Bangladesh and forcing back mutineers attempting to cross over.

The political dispensation in New Delhi should recognise the dangers of playing party politics with India’s foreign and security policy. India is witnessing rising turmoil all around its borders and, therefore, a stable, moderate Bangladesh is in its long-term interests. Constructive Indo-Bangladesh ties can be a major stabilising factor for the south Asian region as a whole. 

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