Is BJP-led India changing its Bangladesh policy?



India: Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar | Asia Society

M Serajul Islam | Jul 07,2023  New Age Bangladesh

INDIA’S external affairs minister Dr Subramaniam Jaisankhar’s recent address in New Delhi to celebrate the ninth anniversary of the Bharatiya Janata Party government was music to the ears of India’s neighbours sans, perhaps, Pakistan. He has stated that India has been the least involved in internal affairs of its neighbours in the nine years of the BJP rule. He has further stated that India has achieved the ability and skills to conduct relations with not just the governments but also with the political parties in South Asia.

The minister’s statements have, however, created conflicting reactions in the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The statements have disappointed the Awami League, making many of them apprehensive. Bangladesh’s foreign minister Dr AKA Momen openly sought New Delhi’s help for a fourth consecutive term for the Awami League on an official visit to New Delhi in 2022. His plea was widely reported on the Indian and Bangladesh media. New Delhi ignored it, raising confusion in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s opposition parties led by the BNP have been in the political wilderness since the Awami League came to power in January 2009. They have been oppressed, incarcerated and subjected to enforced disappearances and other forms of oppression. The US-west-UN and international rights organizations have accused the Awami League in recent times of the violations that are protected by UN charters with Bangladesh on the cusp of its next general elections.

India had stood steadfastly behind the Awami League till Dr Jaisankhar’s recent statements. It provided seminal support to the Awami League to become and remain the dominant power in Bangladesh. New Delhi, therefore, remained silent while the US-led west became vocal against the Awami League up until the Indian prime minister’s Washington visit. Two instances underline India’s prime role in placing the Awami League in its present position of dominance.

India’s former president Pranab Mukherjee’s soft corner for the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina were open secrets in Bangladesh, thanks to his prolific writings, some on his retirement as president in 2017. He wrote that he had assured General Moeen U Ahmed not to worry about his safety and future after his military rule had ended when the latter met him in February 2008 in New Delhi. Many now believe that the former Indian president won the general over on the side of the Awami League. The Awami League won the December 2008 elections by a landslide. Its victory was expected but not the margin. General Moeen U Ahmed supervised the general elections.

The other instance of India’s interference in Bangladesh’s domestic politics was the infamous visit of the Indian foreign secretary Sujata Singh to Dhaka before Bangladesh’s 2014 general election. She arm-twisted president HM Ershad, many say blackmailed, to participate in the 2014 elections. India’s interference allowed the Awami League to hold the 2014 elections that the BNP-led opposition boycotted.

India’s interference helped the Awami League to also abort the BNP-Jamaat’s movement for the restoration of the caretaker government system that it had forced the BNP to adopt in the constitution as the 13h amendment in 1991–96 with Jamaat and Jatiya Party as allies. Sheikh Hasina claimed while leading the 1991–96 movement that the caretaker government system was the panacea for changing government peacefully in an emerging democracy. She wanted the caretaker government system to be in the constitution ‘forever.’

India’s interference also legitimized the 15th amendment under which the Awami League held the 2014 elections. The BNP’s effort to establish the amendment as the Awami League’s constitutional mechanism for its BAKSAL vision failed because India led the Awami League’s claim that the BNP and Jamaat were supporters of Islamic terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that the US-led West accepted wholeheartedly. The result of the 2014 elections was a shame not just to Bangladesh but also to all those who supported it. There was no election to 154 of the 300 seats.

Bangladesh’s present crisis is similar but more dangerous than that it faced leading to the 2014 elections with important changes down the road. One perceptible change has been in India’s role in the 2018 elections. New Delhi stayed away from it despite repeated appeals by the Awami League for help. The Awami League even claimed in making its desperate appeals to New Delhi, leading to the 2018 elections that many hundreds and thousands of its supporters would be killed if it lost power.

The Awami League still won in 2018 elections another absurd election. It had, meanwhile politicized the civil bureaucracy, the law enforcement agencies and the Election Commissioner in its favour in such a manner that they ensured ballot boxes managed votes to be stuffed in its favour the midnight before the election. Hence, the 2018 elections earned the ‘midnight elections’ nickname. The BNP flagged the futility of participating in a general election under the 15th amendment but was forced to take part in it because it would have, otherwise, lost its registration for abstaining from two consecutive general elections. It was no wonder, therefore, that the Awami League won 293 of the 300 seats in the 2018 elections.

Dramatic changes have occurred in the international order since Bangladesh’s 2018 election. Islamic terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that had made the US-west-UN allow the Awami League to do anything to remain in power leading to the 2014 and the 2018 elections are now out of the radar. These powers have now come together for democracy, human rights and a free and fair general election in Bangladesh at a time when it is clear that the country cannot withstand another election similar to the 2014 and 2018 elections. It is now also clear that there cannot be any election in Bangladesh under the 15th Amendment without pushing the country towards an existential crisis.

India which was an ally of the US-West in Bangladesh’s controversial 2014 and 2018 elections, nevertheless, had remained silent about the dramatic changes. It kept Bangladesh across its political divide, waiting, aware that its role would be very crucial. Most Bangladeshis were not inclined to believe that the US-west-UN would not be able to force a peaceful change of government in Bangladesh without India. A great many believed that New Delhi and Washington would, in the end, back a fourth term for the Awami League.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi’s recent successful visit to Washington answered Bangladesh’s waiting, almost. Narendra Modi did not speak for the Awami League as its supporters expected. He agreed instead through paragraph 36 of the 58-paragraph joint declaration of the summit to support ‘freedom, democracy, human rights, inclusion, pluralism, and equal opportunities for all citizens.’ Thus, by interpretation, he dittoed the recent initiatives of the United States in Bangladesh for democracy and human rights, particularly for holding Bangladesh’s next general election in a manner where every voter would be able to vote freely, fairly and without fear.

The Indian external affairs minister’s statements (or commitments?) have thus come at a critical time for Bangladesh.

Dr Jaisankhar iterated in his address in New Delhi what prime minister Narendra Modi signed in the joint declaration namely India’s commitment not to interfere in Bangladesh’s forthcoming general elections. These developments could also be the game-changer for holding Bangladesh’s next general elections freely and fairly and dealing with the existential threat that a flawed national election would pose for the country.

Postscript: The BJP-led Indian government has on record not interfered in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs as much as the Congress-led government had interfered during its tenure since 2014. Is the BJP-led government, therefore, changing its manner of conducting relations with Bangladesh from the way the Congress-led government that had considered Bangladesh and the Awami League as one entity? Perhaps.