Debate : India-Bangladesh Relations in the Context of Recent Elections

Indo-Bangladesh Relations to Deepen During Hasina’s Third Term

(This article is part of the ORF journal)

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee* Observer Research Foundation, 17 May 2019

Sheikh Hasina’s victory in the 2018 parliamentary election has made her the first Prime Minister to form a government for a third consecutive time in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina won the 2009 and the 2014 elections also. Thereturn of Sheikh Hasina to power is a welcome development for India, and India-Bangladesh relationship is likely to deepen further during her present term. India-Bangladesh relations grew significantly in Sheikh Hasina’s last two terms. Her Awami League led government has been credited for the upward swing in this relationship. After her victory in the 2009 election, Sheikh Hasina declared improving relationship with India as her priority. In this regard, she visited India in 2010 and 2017 respectively. India reciprocated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visiting Bangladesh in 2011, and his successor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, visiting in 2015. Bangladesh now occupies a pivotal position in India’s Neighbourhood First policy, and is a partner in its flagship Act East Policy. Given the track record of improvements in the bilateral relationship during her previous terms, it can be assumed that Sheikh Hasina’s third term will be sustaining the momentum and bonhomie in the relationship.

In spite of a good beginning, India and Bangladesh relations over the decades have not been smooth and have actually faced many pitfalls. India supported Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, and its army fought alongside the freedom fighters against the Pakistani occupational forces during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971. The death of Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the country’s freedom struggle and the father of Sheikh Hasina, changed the dynamics of the relationship shortly after the country’s independence. Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a military coup in 1975. The military dictators who assumed power after assassination of Mujibur Rahman pursued a foreign policy that favoured distancing the country from India. Soon, India – once considered a friend – was looked upon with suspicion and mistrust. Many of the political parties, as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which formed the government after democracy was reintroduced in 1991, maintained reservations regarding the country’s relationship with India. In 1991, democracy was re-established by ousting the military dictator, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, following a mass movement in which the Awami League and its rival BNP actively participated. However, the policies of the two political parties towards India differed.

Prior to the 2009 election, the Awami League and the BNP alternately held power in Bangladesh. The BNP formed governments in 1991–96 and 2001–06, and the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina was in power from 1996–2001. During the BNP tenures, the bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh was not pleasant, and touched rock bottom during its term from 2001-06. It made some progress during the Awami League’s term 1996-2001. The signing of the Ganges Water Treaty was a major success in this period. The Awami League government also promised to give transit facilities to India for transporting goods to its north-eastern states via Bangladesh’s territory. This was, however, stalled following protests by the Opposition.

The India-Bangladesh relationship tends to fluctuate with the change of the party in power in Bangladesh. But Sheikh Hasina’s consecutive victory has brought stability to the relationship. Primarily, the achievement of Sheikh Hasina lies in the restoration of trust between the two countries which was missing for a long time. Earlier, the Indian-Bangladesh relationship was mired in suspicion and mistrust.

Bangladesh’s reluctance in responding to India’s repeated request to act against the some insurgent groups active in its soil was a major irritant between the two countries. In the past, Bangladesh denied the existence of any such groups on its soil. Sheikh Hasina’s action against such groups was effective in building confidence between the two countries. In 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged not to allow her country’s territory to be used by groups inimical to India’s interests. In consonance with her words, Bangladesh acted against the groups which were operating in the country. Many leaders of the north-eastern insurgent groups – like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) – were arrested with Bangladesh’s help. Sheikh Hasina’s initiative in responding to India’s security concerns was the turning point in the relationship.

The improved India-Bangladesh relations have resulted in the resolution of long-standing issues, and the exploration of new areas for cooperation. The peaceful resolution of land and maritime boundary disputes pending for a long time has strengthened the relationship. Besides, India and Bangladesh are cooperating in a variety of areas, including security, defence, trade and commerce, connectivity, energy, science and technology, space, etc.

On its part, India took care to understand Bangladesh’s genuine interests and concerns, and accordingly initiated measures to strengthen the relationship. Recognising Bangladesh’s interest to become a major connectivity hub, India pledged to provide around US$ 8 billion as a line of credit for improving its infrastructure. Today, Bangladesh is one of the biggest recipients of India’s developmental assistance. Again, responding to Bangladesh’s plea to reduce trade imbalance, India has taken appropriate measures – like providing dutyfree access to many Bangladeshi products to its markets. Additionally, India is encouraging companies to invest in Bangladesh, and is also upgrading border infrastructure to address the issue of non-tariff barriers which have been identified as a barrier for the growth of trade, etc.

Besides, in an effort to reduce the death of Bangladeshi nationals on the border – an issue which Bangladesh repeatedly raises – India has introduced/issued non-lethal weapons to the Border Security Force (BSF) stationed on the border with Bangladesh. Again, India has simplified the visa process by undertaking measures like the opening of new visa centres outside Dhaka; providing long-term visas to businesses and people above the 65 years of age, etc. Visas were a major point of concern for the people of Bangladesh, and was perceived as an obstacle to people-to-people connectivity.

It is expected that the India-Bangladesh relationship will evolve from being friends to partners in Sheikh Hasina’s third term. The two countries are likely to take steps to enhance cooperation in different areas, including fighting terrorism; enhancing regional connectivity; strengthening regional organisation like BIMSTEC etc. Optimism is running high about the future of the bilateral relationship. However, given the past history of the relationship, scepticism still persists about the future. Since politics in Bangladesh has been a determining factor deciding the future of the bilateral relationship, an examination of the evolution of the domestic political situation in Bangladesh is necessary.

Though Bangladesh has a multi-party political system; the Awami League and the BNP have dominated the political landscape of the country since 1991. Politics in Bangladesh have transformed in the past few years, especially after the 2014 elections. Following the BNP’s boycott of the 2014 poll, the Awami League emerged as the sole political force in the country since there was no credible Opposition in the parliament. The position of the party has strengthened further after the 2018 election, in which the Awami League and its allies have won 288 seats out of 300, resulting in AL emerging as the only non-challengeable political force in Bangladesh.

Unlike in the 2014 election, the BNP participated in the 2018 election; but it could hardly give a reasonable challenge to the Awami League. The reason for the BNP’s debacle in the election is essentially the leadership vacuum due to the arrest of its leader, Begum Khaleda Zia – following her conviction in a corruption case in February 2018. Tarique Rahman, Khaleda’s son and her chosen heir, was unable to take the lead as he was convicted in corruption cases and was thus ineligible to fight elections. Besides, he has been living in London for a decade, which also prevents him from effectively leading the party on the ground. The lack of leadership has made the future of the party uncertain. The BNP, however, complained of irregularities in the elections, and cited that as a reason for its poor performance. Thus today, politically, Sheikh Hasina faces no major challenges.

Historically, the army has been a frequent disrupter of democracy in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina faces no major challenge from the army too – which does have a record of ousting elected governments. Experience from the recent past suggests that the Bangladesh army has undergone a significant transformation from its initial years. Over the years, there has been a rise in professionalism in the army, and it is reluctant to meddle with the country’s politics. Post 1991, there has been only one instance of the army’s intervention in the country’s politics. Between 2007-2008, a military-backed caretaker government ruled Bangladesh. The intervention, however, was made out of necessity rather than choice.

In January 2007, Bangladesh was in a state of deadlock due to differences between the Awami League and the BNP over the formation of the caretaker government, which was to oversee the election. The law and order situation deteriorated as violent clashes broke out between the cadres of the Awami League and the BNP, and Bangladesh was in chaos. Given the situation, the caretaker government declined to conduct the election, and there was no legitimate government. A state of emergency was promulgated, and the army had to intervene to break the impasse. A military-backed caretaker government was formed, and it remained in power for two years. The military-backed caretaker government worked especially for organising the election, and relinquished power after the election in December 2008. In the past two terms of Sheikh Hasina, there have been some efforts to provoke the army by radical groups. The army has remained disinterested, and has not broken the chain of command. Further, Prime Minister Hasina claimed to have developed a good rapport with the Army. Her recent drive for defence modernisation is seen as a measure to maintain good relations with the army.

Sheikh Hasina’s third term victory is a mandate in support of development, and the expectations of the people are high. Any fall from that expectation might lead to major public dissatisfaction, and give an agenda to the opposition to launch a mass public protest that might threaten the stability of the government. The potential for the emergence of such a situation arises because of popular claims of governance deficit and corruption in the country. Atrocities by Awami League activities have been an issue of resentment among the people, and they are now demanding action. Sheikh Hasina’s failure in controlling the Awami League’s cadres might trigger the discontent of the people. In 2018, the death of a student by a speeding bus in Dhaka city led to a mass protest demanding road safety. The deft handling of the situation by Sheikh Hasina helped in preventing the protest from turning into a mass antigovernment movement. During the election campaign, Sheikh Hasina sought vote on the platform of good governance and prosperity. Hopefully, Sheikh Hasina will work on delivering her electoral promise, and address the concerns of the people.

Given the political situation in Bangladesh, it can be assumed that Sheikh Hasina will complete her 5 year term, and India and Bangladesh ties will not be disturbed. Traditionally, the India-Bangladesh relationship has grown during the Awami League’s rule. Still, the reliance on individual political parties shaping the nature India and Bangladesh ties have been detrimental to its growth. The Awami League is criticised by the Opposition for favouring India – though the party has been quite conscious of these criticisms in dealing with India, so as to avoid any political backlash.

For a robust growth in India Bangladesh relations, there is also a need for India to continue to tackle the fall out of negativity in its popular image – as projected by the detractors. India has already initiated some efforts in this regard. The BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia was invited to India, and was given a warm welcome in 2012. There is some scepticism about the impact of such efforts as Khaleda Zia declined to meet Indian President Pranab Mukherjee during his visit to Bangladesh in 2013.

The December 2018 election saw hardly any negative comments about India being made by major political parties. Political observers of Bangladesh suggest that political parties have realised the importance of maintaining a friendly relationship with India, and all of them feel the advantage of having good ties with India.

Discussions about Sheikh Hasina’s third term and the future of the India-Bangladesh relationship demand the mention of Bangladesh’s relationship with China, the Asian power ‘competing’ with India in expanding its influence in South Asia. China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner, and even enjoys a working military relationship. There is a section in Bangladesh which sees its relations with China as a counter balance to India; the country which they believe is the big brother in the neighbourhood. Sheikh Hasina does not endorse such a view. Rather, she wants to maintain good relationships with both China and India, and reap the benefits from the rising prosperity of the two Asian powers and has been credited for maintaining a balanced relationship with India and China.

Often Sheikh Hasina reiterates her intention of maintaining a peaceful relationship with neighbours. She feels a good relationship with neighbours is imperative for the development and prosperity of her country. Sheikh Hasina’s awareness of India’s interests are best illustrated by Bangladesh’s refusal to Chinese funding to Sonadia deep sea port as the condition laid by China would have hampered Indian interests.

The Awami League government is working on enhancing its ties with various countries globally, and special emphasis is being given on building ties with Saudi Arabia. The government is constructing mosques across the country with Saudi funding, and many social and political observers in Bangladesh fear this might adversely impact Bangladeshi society. Any resultant promotion of radical religious beliefs could adversely affect the liberal religious beliefs of the country. Considering the geographical proximity as well as the social, cultural, and familial bonds that the India and Bangladesh share, such a social transformation will certainly have ramifications for India. Many observers, internally and externally, hope that Sheikh Hasina will take note of these concerns, and work on retaining the existing liberal social fabric of the country.

Sheikh Hasina has pledged to transform Bangladesh, and work for its development. Bangladesh is seeking help from India to achieve this goal. As a neighbour, India should provide the necessary support to Bangladesh in achieving this goal. Emphasis should be given to the timely delivery of the various projects promised to the country. Cooperation between India and Bangladesh will not only help in the development of the two countries but also contribute to the growth of peace and prosperity in South Asia

* The Author, Dr. Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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