Bangladesh: India Will Have Its Way but at the Cost of Free and Fair Elections

Bangladesh’s domestic politics and governance impact India more than any other country in the world.

4 min read
Hindi Female

The countdown to Bangladesh's general elections on 7 January has begun, with India and the United States openly backing rival political parties. While New Delhi has thrown its full weight behind Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League that is eying a fourth successive term, Washington is propping up the Bangladesh Nationalist Party–Jamaat-e-Islami (BNP-JeI) combine that is starved of power since 2009.

Importantly, besides the resident power and the superpower flexing their muscles, China and Russia too have thrown their hat in the ring. The European Union is also a key player but is keeping an intriguingly low profile, unlike other powers spurring their favourite political party less than a month before votes are cast in the densely populated, strategic land bridge between South and Southeast Asia.

As New Delhi has a far bigger stake in Bangladesh than Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and Brussels, getting its faithful ally Hasina re-elected by any means is the biggest priority of India’s diplomatic-cum-security establishment today as it was yesterday.

Fortunately, India also has the capabilities to achieve its goal as it can be said without any exaggeration that it yields more influence in Bangladesh than the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members put together. Hasina has given New Delhi no reason to doubt her commitment; she has gone out of her way to be on the right side of India, making her irreplaceable and indispensable to us.


Bangladesh’s Politics and Governance Impact India More Than Any Other Country

Come to think of it, Bangladesh is not just another country like Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, or Sri Lanka in our neighbourhood – it’s a lot more than that.

Geographically, Bangladesh is well and truly embedded “inside” India. Save for a short boundary with Myanmar and the waters of the Bay of Bengal in the south, Bangladesh is surrounded by as many as five Indian states – West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram – on all sides. In that sense, Bangladesh is, indeed, “inside” India – and therefore far more important than a neighbour in the traditional sense.

Naturally, Bangladesh’s domestic politics and governance impact India more than any other country in the world – and certainly much more than the US which is continents and oceans away from Bangladesh. Yet Washington has an out-and-out interventionist agenda in our backyard. It first imposed sanctions and then clamped visa curbs to rein in the Hasina regime and is openly saying that they are meant to ensure that the upcoming elections are free and fair.

The US ambassador, Peter Haas, has become the opposition’s star anchor-cum-advocate in Dhaka, although he keeps insisting that he is not batting for any particular political party but is only a crusader for democracy and inclusive elections.

America’s ambitious goal is to pressure Hasina into stepping down, clearing the decks for holding elections under a non-partisan, caretaker government. That’s exactly what BNP-JeI also wants. The bloc has refused to participate in the elections unless they are held under a caretaker government. But that’s an impossibility for the simple reason that the provisions for a neutral administration supervising the polls were scrapped by a constitutional amendment way back in 2011. All overt and covert attempts by Haas to bring AL and BNP-JeI to the table for an unconditional dialogue have proved futile.

In contrast to the US trying to openly regulate Bangladeshi elections as an ombudsman of sorts, India is backing Hasina to the hilt by simply taking a stand that elections are Bangladesh’s domestic matter best left to its political class and the country’s institutions and constitution.

New Delhi’s smart hands-off policy, articulated by Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra himself, gives Hasina’s AL an unbeatable upper hand – it essentially rules out a caretaker government and guarantees her re-election as PM for a fourth five-year term in perfect sync with India’s national interests. India wants Hasina to be left alone so that she can script and engineer her own victory. Kwatra also said that India respects Bangladesh’s democratic process – implying that the US doesn’t.


But India has Competition

China too is saying that Bangladesh has every right to conduct elections as per its constitution – echoing New Delhi’s stand. China’s take, articulated by its ambassador in Dhaka, Yao Wen, really upset BNP-JeI as it trivialises BNP-JeI’s demand to hold elections under a caretaker government.

The opposition bloc was also stung by Wen’s remarks that “after the elections, our cooperation will continue”, which implied that Hasina would get re-elected and it would be business as usual between China and Bangladesh. And unlike India, Beijing has even slammed the US for interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, hugely endearing itself to the dispensation in Dhaka. China has bluntly told the US not to mess with Bangladesh – and in so many words – earning Dhaka’s gratitude.

From an Indian viewpoint, there is another complication. Russia is backing China in Bangladesh. Moscow has accused Washington in general and Haas in particular of inciting the opposition to organise anti-government protests across Bangladesh to exert pressure on Hasina ahead of parliamentary elections.

Moscow’s statement is an endorsement of what Beijing has been saying about US interference in Bangladesh. New Delhi can’t be too happy about Russia – a powerful country that India depends on for its multiple needs – helping China to tighten its grip on Bangladesh. Any Russian backing for China in India’s neighbourhood is tantamount to betrayal by Moscow.

There is no doubt that India is on a very good wicket in Bangladesh and will ultimately have the last laugh. But relentless American pressure on Dhaka poses the danger of driving Hasina into China’s arms. And a Bangladesh that’s indebted to China is good for neither New Delhi nor Washington.

For five long years, both India and the US will have to taste the fruit of what Washington is now sowing in Bangladesh.

(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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