‘India Out’ Campaign: Bangladesh’s Copycat Template Won’t Serve Its Politics

This template, borrowed by the BNP from the Maldives, seems to be a desperate gamble bereft of any new ideas.

5 min read

One would have thought that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition political party, would conceive a campaign against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government in a mature frame of reference. Instead, they have chosen to join the simmering "India Out” campaign that was being conducted on social media, mainly by expatriate Bangladeshis who have been co-opted by the BNP, American, Chinese, and Pakistani agencies.

This copycat template, borrowed from the Maldives, seems to be a desperate gamble bereft of any new ideas. The BNP has its back to the wall, having lost power in 2006 and being in the wilderness for 18 years.

This campaign is unlikely to deliver the electoral benefits which Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu seems to have derived, though with increasingly adverse consequences.

What are the Allegations Against India?

Anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh are nothing new and a group of expatriate Bangladeshis have used social media to keep it alive. Their main grouse is India’s alleged interference in their domestic matters which basically means that India helped the AL win elections and remain in power.

The AL has won the last four elections in a row and the BNP and its allies find themselves in a political cul-de-sac. India is being blamed for Bangladesh’s democratic and human rights deficit and covertly helping the AL remain in power to further its interest and extract unequal advantages.

Anti-India sections in Bangladesh and abroad see this campaign as the beginning of a new awakening and its impact will be felt in the long term. These anti-India elements have argued that their campaign is a political one which seeks to ward off encroachments on Bangladesh’s sovereignty.

Western countries, particularly the USA, use the human rights tool for their interests to put pressure where they feel it would help to apply such a thing but are quick to engage authoritarian regimes, putting the human rights issue in the freezer.

Such is the hypocrisy embedded in geopolitics. The USA’s attempts to impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi officials backfired and Hasina and the AL romped home to victory. China is no different. After the serial attacks on Chinese nationals working in Pakistan, China’s foreign ministry condemned terrorism without any thought to the fact that it supports Pakistan, the number one terrorist state in the world.


The Irony of American Intervention in Bangladeshi Politics

The American patronage of the BNP and its main ally the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), a pro-Pakistan Islamist party, has been an open secret. The USA has longstanding difficulties with the AL and the latter reciprocates its distrust of the Americans.

This distrust has a long history since the 1971 War of Liberation. The USA claimed that Bangladesh’s elections were not free and fair but desisted from any further punitive measures, conscious of India’s interests. The USA has since expressed the desire to work constructively with the Hasina government.

The irony is that the Americans tried very hard to interfere in Bangladesh to seek regime change but the BNP and their supporters blame India for the same. Yet, during the Pakistan elections, the Americans made anodyne statements about free and fair elections but did not use punitive measures.

The reason for this is the cosy relationship between the American administration and the Pakistan Army. So, for bilateral ties, the civilian government in Pakistan does not carry any traction and the Army gets a free hand in manipulating election results.

As a quid pro quo, the Pakistan Army provides facilities to needle Iran and Afghanistan. Iran had reacted to such CIA-ISI machination by launching missile strikes in Pakistan on camps of the terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Adl, an Iranian Baloch outfit which is fighting the Iranian regime in the Sistan-Baluchestan province of Iran that abuts Balochistan in Pakistan.

For this facilitation, the Pakistani Army and the ISI chiefs received a red carpet treatment during their joint visit to Washington.

The US is currently conducting a campaign against India as the election season gets underway. Its unwarranted statements on the free and fair trial of Delhi CM Kejriwal and the freezing of bank accounts of the Congress Party have drawn strong reactions from India’s MEA. Such statements satisfy some American lobbies but if the US Administration think they can derive benefit from such statements, they are mistaken.

The Extreme Measure of Boycotting Indian Goods is Misdirected

The Americans get into this game thinking they will influence public opinion in India. They know it is futile but still indulge in public grandstanding. The US has also pressurised the United Nations (UN) to issue statements that are not only unwarranted but expose its impotence.

The UN has failed miserably in taking any productive initiative in the Ukraine war. The UN may well be halfway on the road that its predecessor, the League of Nations, travelled on the road to extinction.

The BNP has added another dimension to this "India Out” campaign – it is exhorting Bangladeshis to boycott Indian products. Instructions for such action may have been issued by Tarique Rahman, Acting Chairman of the BNP, who operates from exile in London.

Convicted of corruption and murder, he has been sentenced to imprisonment and death by Bangladesh’s highest court. He has to reinvent himself after every lost election to maintain control over his party. His mother, former PM Khaleda Zia, is nominally the head of the BNP but she is medically incapacitated.

This campaign highlights the lack of ideas in the BNP leadership and reflects a sense of desperation. The BNP-JEI alliance depends on stoking anti-India rhetoric to cater to voters who are anti-AL, anti-India and pro-Pakistan.

The "India card" is used to trigger voter concern. Attitudes towards India in these sections are the legacy of the Partition and anti-Hindu feelings.

How BNP’s Anti-India Sentiment Impacts Bilateral Ties

Bangladesh is India’s largest trading partner in the subcontinent and there is mutual dependency in many sectors. India contributes substantially to Bangladesh’s food and energy security. India is a first responder during disasters and Indian assistance during the COVID pandemic was crucial in dealing with the crisis.

The partial conversion of trade to the Rupee-Taka arrangement has saved precious foreign exchange for both countries. Bangladesh’s foreign reserves went down considerably due to the impact of the Ukraine war on food and energy prices, boosting the cost of essential imports.

The BNP has been in decline since 2006 and election boycotts have not helped it to regain its earlier status. They are groping for a new platform to carry forward their opposition to the government and the "India card" has become their chief option.

The BNP leadership is not united and there are those who object to this campaign but are unwilling to speak out. Bangladesh’s impressive economic performance under Hasina’s leadership is acknowledged by all.

The country has overcome extreme poverty and will soon attain the status of a developing country, a leg up from the less developing country category. The two countries are currently negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to further facilitate bilateral trade and investment.

The "India Out” campaign is likely to fizzle out and end up as a damp squib. At any rate, the Hasina government will ensure that crucial imports from India that contribute to food security are not affected because that would lead to inflation. The people of Bangladesh know that during the BNP-JEI government, the country had aligned with Pakistan and terrorist organisations that had a hugely negative impact on bilateral ties.

(The author is a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; he was India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh and is currently, a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation; he is also a founding Director of the think tank DeepStrat) This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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