Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling coalition has been re-elected, winning 287 of the 298 seats in parliament. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first leader to call her and convey his congratulations on her victory, and Hasina in return expressed her thankfulness to the Indian leader.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs said: “The PM also reiterated the priority India attaches to Bangladesh as a neighbor, a close partner for regional development, security and cooperation, and a central pillar in India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy.”
However, the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has not accepted the results of the elections, alleging that the vote was sabotaged through practices such as electoral fraud, intimidation and widespread rigging.
Some sections of the media and human-rights organizations have also alleged rigging of the elections. On Sunday, the day of the vote, supporters of the two major parties – Awami League and BNP – reportedly faced physical assaults, resulting in the deaths of 18 people while around 200 were injured.
India’s attempts at forging successful political ties with Bangladesh will largely depend on the way the two countries manage each other’s security concerns and whether New Delhi becomes instrumental in meeting Dhaka’s development concerns.
Bangladesh under Hasina’s leadership has been considered pro-India, and it took measures to meet India’s concerns in the northeastern border areas by effectively tackling militancy operating from its soil. The Awami League government led by Hasina has arrested and handed over some of the leaders of militant organizations to India, and militancy in the border areas has witnessed a considerable decline during her leadership.
However, not everything has gone in India’s favor. China’s offer of a whopping US$24 billion worth of loans to Bangladesh toward bilateral assistance for infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative during President Xi Jinping’s historic visit in 2016 did not go unnoticed in New Delhi given its suspicions over Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the South Asian and Indo-Pacific regions.
Further, Bangladesh according to a 2017 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report became the second-largest importer of Chinese arms after Pakistan in South Asia.
Over the years, adding to Indian concerns, China has been successful in forging a close partnership with Bangladesh. In 2005, China overtook India as Bangladesh’s principal source of imports.
Of late, despite rendering quick humanitarian assistance, New Delhi’s balancing gestures toward Myanmar and Bangladesh prevented it from unambiguously supporting Bangladeshi pleas for repatriation of around 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar, becoming a temporary irritant to Dhaka. New Delhi’s policy stemmed from its efforts at developing Sittwe Port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and implementing the $484 million Kaladan transport project with the objective of connecting Rakhine with the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram.
At times as well, a few Indian leaders’ occasional indulgence in rhetoric over the status of Bangladeshi migrants within India caused emotional discord in Dhaka.
New Delhi realizes that Dhaka not only provides a strategic link between mainland India and the northeastern states given that for these states, being landlocked, it is through Bangladesh that they find a quick outlet to the sea, but it is vital to deal with protracted security problems in some of the restive northeastern states as well.
More important, as the Chinese foray into the South Asia and the Indian Ocean region is extending its sway, an improvement in Indo-Bangladeshi ties would help assuage India’s concerns of strategic encirclement by China. Therefore, India has forged close security ties with Bangladesh in the forms of joint border patrols and joint military and naval exercises and by concluding agreements on fighting terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking.
However, meeting Bangladeshi concerns would mean India has not only to deal with the Rohingya refugee crisis more effectively, it has to be the major driver of development in Bangladesh.
The issues of development and enhanced connectivity are likely to remain a priority for Bangladesh. Despite being a smaller country in the South Asian landscape, it took the first step toward forging regional cooperation and it was the former president of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rahman, who made the first concrete proposal for establishing a framework for regional cooperation in South Asia, which culminated in the formation of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985.
Witnessing the 18th SAARC Summit of 2015 in Kathmandu failing to achieve the desired results of improving regional connectivity and strengthening the regional integration process as the association was held hostage to political disputes, Bangladesh expressed its desire to reactivate subregional groupings such as BBIN.
The BBIN initiative was formalized in 1997 by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal with the objectives of forging cooperation on connectivity of power, transport and infrastructure. Meanwhile BCIM, which seeks to establish an economic corridor connecting Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar, was part of a Track I initiative for Bangladesh even while the largest South Asian country, India, kept it as a Track II initiative until 2013.
Keeping development as the primary agenda and avoiding the trap of an alliance with either India or China, Prime Minister Hasina during her earlier term in office inaugurated the construction of the 130-kilometer-long Bangladesh-India Friendship Pipeline. The pipeline was laid down from Siliguri in West Bengal to Parbatipur, Bangladesh, in order to reduce significantly time and transportation costs by diminishing dependence on railways for bilateral trade.
Over the last decade under Hasina’s leadership, the enhanced relationship between India and Bangladesh was indicated by 10 meetings between her and Modi, inauguration of 19 development projects by the two leaders, and signing of more than 90 bilateral agreements in new areas such as space, information technology, electronics, cybersecurity, and civil nuclear energy among others. These developmental initiatives helped assuaged Indian concerns over Bangladesh cozying up to China.
Avoiding the alliance trap
After Bangladesh became independent of Pakistan with India’s assistance, its leadership concluded a friendship agreement with India, which although opened up possibilities for strong bilateral ties, was considered unequal and invited criticisms from dissenters within Bangladesh.
Indo-Bangladeshi ties have traversed through several hitches but remained largely stable. For instance, after India’s postponement of the 2005 SAARC summit for eight months over differences with the host, the Khaleda Zia government of Bangladesh, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh proposed establishing the South Asian University (SAU) in Dhaka. New Delhi would make the principal contribution to its establishment and operating costs not only to demonstrate its commitment to SAARC but to solidify bilateral relations.
At times, mutual distrust has prevented beneficial relations as well. For instance, the Bangladeshi government rejected a project recommended by the World Bank to supply gas from Sylhet to New Delhi, a project that would have been beneficial for both countries.
Beijing’s outreach to Dhaka is likely to have created brainstorming in New Delhi as to how to stem this tide. However, Dhaka’s preference for growth and development and its attempts to prevent being labeled either as an Indian or Chinese geopolitical ally should put Indian concerns at bay.
So long as India is able to deal with development concerns of Bangladesh effectively and efficiently, reasons to worry against the Chinese sway will remain very limited.