Mint Explainer: The significance of Bangladesh’s election for India

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There are several other compelling factors to why India would be keenly watching the results of the 7 January poll in the country it helped gain independence from Pakistan in 1971. Mint takes a look at India’s stakes in the outcome of Bangladesh’s election.

What are India’s relations with Bangladesh’s main electoral parties?

India supported Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman during his campaign for an independent Bangladesh. That’s well-remembered by his daughter Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League and the current prime minister of Bangladesh. India had also given shelter to her and her sister, Sheikh Rehana, immediately after Rehman was assassinated on 15 August, 1975 in a coup planned by a coterie of middle-level army officers. 

On the other hand, India’s ties with Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh National Party (BNP) have never been as warm as that with Hasina. For one, Zia’s close links with the Islamist fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh, some of whom are heavily influenced by Pakistan, have caused unease in India. Besides, her turning a blind eye to anti-India groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) taking shelter in Bangladesh has angered New Delhi. Zia and BNP are also seen as cultivating close ties with India’s strategic rival China.

India’s official position has been that it will do business with whoever is in power in Bangladesh, and New Delhi has reached out to Zia several times. Prime Minister Narendra Modi met her during a visit to Bangladesh in 2015. That was three years after Zia’s visit to India in 2012, when she was quoted as telling then Indian external affairs minister Salman Khurshid that her visit marked “a new beginning”. Still, ties between India and Hasina seem on a stronger pitch than those with the BNP and other Bangladeshi parties.

How is Bangladesh crucial to India’s security?

India’s terrorism challenge is well-documented, and having a regime in Bangladesh that is sensitive to New Delhi’s security concerns is of vital importanceThat one of the first actions of Hasina after her Awami League won the 2008 election was to hand over key leaders of the secessionist ULFA to India has not gone unnoticed here. (ULFA’s main objective has been an independent Assam. A segment of ULFA signed a peace pact with New Delhi last month, seen as a result of Bangladesh’s stance of not supporting it.)

Hasina’s sensitivity to India’s security concerns has gone a long way in building trust between the two countries. This is in sharp contrast to the 2001-2006 period when the BNP was in power. Zia’s tenure was seen as the period when ULFA and other anti-India groups secured shelter and support in Bangladesh. The BNP was also seen as having links with fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, that were seen as influenced by Pakistan and harbouring anti-India sentiments. India has quietly supported Hasina’s purge of extremists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh several times, including during her first term (2009-14).

What’s the China angle?

China has in recent years moved slowly but surely into India’s periphery–increasing its influence in all of India’s neighbours. That’s one of the reasons for India looking to bond closely with Bangladesh–through unprecedented lines of credit, connectivity initiatives, closer military-to-military and people-to-people contacts. 

Bangladesh has been wooed by China to join its ambitious Belt and Road (Infrastructure) Initiative (BRI), and by India to be part of the Indo-Pacific. But in its engagements with Beijing, Dhaka’s current administration has been mindful of Indian sensitivities. On the Indo-Pacific, Dhaka has stated that its strategy will be based on the principle advocated by Rahman–“Friendship towards all, malice toward none”.

How have India’s ties with the Awami League helped?

The traditionally warm bonds between New Delhi and Hasina’s ruling party have placed the relationship between India and Bangladesh on an upward trajectory. In 1996, during Hasina’s first term in office as prime minister, the two countries signed the Ganga Water Treaty on sharing waters of the river Ganges. In 2010, during Hasina’s visit to India, India extended $1 billion in credit to Bangladesh under its development assistance programme. Bangladesh is currently the largest recipient of such assistance from India, to the tune of $8-9 billion. 

In 2015, India concluded the Land Boundary Agreement to exchange enclaves with Bangladesh and simplify the border between the two countries. The pact had been arrived at in 1974 but not cleared by India’s Parliament until then. The long-awaited assent to the agreement was seen as a milestone in relations between the two countries. Equally noteworthy was India resolving a decades’ old maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh in 2014.

Have India’s northeastern states benefited from this?

Indian goods reach far-flung regions in the northeast cutting across Bangladeshi territory. A decade ago, the subject was politically too sensitive for any Bangladesh politician to talk about without being accused of selling out to India. This has also contributed to increased economic interaction between Bangladesh and India’s northeast. 

Access to India’s northeast through Bangladesh also reduces the vulnerability India had felt previously in being connected to the northeast only through the Siliguri Corridor, or the Chicken’s Neck region. According to officials and analysts, a friendly Bangladesh that allows India access through its territory to the northeast is vital to counter any challenge posed by China in that part of India. 

What’s the current status of India-Bangladesh ties?

Relations between the two neighbours today are described as ‘Sonali Adhyaya’ or a ‘golden chapter’–a success story of India’s Neighbourhood First policy. A decade ago, it would have been Bhutan alone that India could hold up as a model neighbour. 

Today, Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia and India is the second-biggest trade partner of Bangladesh in Asia. India is also Bangladesh’s largest export destination in Asia. The increased economic integration and cooperation between the two countries is seen as the crux of a more integrated region covering Bangladesh-Bhutan-India and Nepal. 

This is also seen as the nucleus of an extended region that also groups Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand under the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC. India has been particularly focused on this group given that Saarc has been hobbled by India-Pakistan tensions. With Myanmar becoming a pariah following the February 2021 military coup, Bangladesh becomes even more important for India for its outreach to Southeast Asia.

Also given that India has to deal with a hostile Pakistan and China, the continuation of a friendly administration in Bangladesh is an imperative in many ways. Projections indicate that Hasina will make a comeback–for a record fourth term–given that the BNP is once again boycotting the polls. But India will have to work hard to shield a friendly government in Dhaka from the criticism of partners like the US and others in the Indo-Pacific.

Elizabeth Roche is associate professor at Jindal Global University

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