Sheikh Hasina was sworn in January 2014 for her second straight term as Prime Minister of Bangladesh, after her Awami League (AL) party secured a landslide win in the general elections held earlier during the month. The electoral process right from the beginning remained embedded in violence and chaos which ended with the issue of ‘crisis of legitimacy’ owing to election boycott by the BNP led alliance of 18 parties.
India was attempting to appear even-handed throughout the electoral process. However, on the eve of the elections, India supported Sheikh Hasina. India should continue to respond positively to the concluded electoral process as it was in accordance with the constitutional principle, and fair opportunities for dialogue and participation were given to the adamant opposition parties. Traditional healthy relations with AL would act as leverage towards engaging intelligentsia, the business community and the people of Bangladesh through different tracks of diplomacy in the future.
Major Challenges for India in Bangladesh
At present India faces several challenges in Bangladesh. First, containment of the Islamic fundamentalist group, Jamaat-e-Islami, as before and in the aftermath of elections it perpetrated a series of violent acts on the Hindu minority in different parts of the country, especially in the north. Second, Jamaat requires to be dissociated from BNP to make possible cooperative relations with BNP. Third, make the present dispensation crack-down on the insurgent groups seeking to foment tensions in India’s Northeast. Fourth, initiate diplomatic engagement in a manner that does not reduce bilateral ties to an engagement that only involves one political party. Fifth, India is required to devise ways in which it is accepted as a non-partisan interlocutor in Bangladesh, and sixth, India should come up with a mechanism to support the ongoing legal process in Bangladesh to close the dark chapters of the unfinished liberation war of 1971.
India’s Interests in Bangladesh
India has both strategic and economic interests in a secular Bangladesh. First, a neutral and friendly Bangladesh would ensure the long-term containment of an assertive China and would check its policy of encirclement. Second, in the sea-lane of Bay of Bengal, a cooperative Bangladesh would protect India’s strategic interests. Third, there is a need to join hands with Bangladesh to fight terrorism within the region. Fourth, developed Bangladesh is in India’s long-term interest as it would contain the problem of illegal immigration into India.
Bangladesh is a natural pillar of India’s ‘Look East Policy’; we share nearly 54 trans-boundary rivers many of which could be harnessed for hydroelectricity, India aspires to have a reasonable partnership stake in the successful execution of the Tipaimukh project on Barak river in Bangladesh. India also wishes to have transit facility through Bangladesh to the landlocked region of the Northeast.
Post Elections Options for India
In the aftermath of elections, India should address the challenges delineated above, especially to check the Islamisation of Bangladesh as forces like Jamaat-e-Islami, Harkat-al-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), Jagrata Muslim Janata, and HUJI-B, are fast spreading their tentacles. AL has done substantial work to keep them at bay, which must be used as leverage. India cannot afford to have another Pakistan on its east. Therefore; India by all means should try to strengthen the hands of democratic forces in Bangladesh. It requires understanding the real cause for the volatile nature of Bangladeshi politics and devising means for instilling political stability, which is the route to cooperative relations. In the past, India has taken many prudent steps to open different channels of engagement, which must be taken forward logically. Turmoil within Bangladesh will have the potential to affect stability in of eastern and Northeastern India.
India has leverage with Bangladesh as it is on the right side of Bangladesh’s Islamist-secular divide. Accordingly, at the governmental level, it must keep providing economic benefits and cooperation to help strengthen its industries and economy. India may also keep the option of providing military assistance to Bangladesh open. However, these should be undertaken with care to not encourage anti-India sentiments. Indian political parties should also be encouraged to cooperate by building relations with like-minded parties in Bangladesh.
India should develop diplomatic capability to respond and groom political leadership of all hues across Bangladesh. Diplomacy should be conducted in a way that allows AL to efface accusations of being an Indian stooge. AL’s position must be strengthened by concluding the Teesta river water-sharing agreement and ratification of the Land-Boundary Agreement for Exchange of Enclaves.
The US is asking for a free and fair re-election in Bangladesh contrary to Indian interests. As a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, India is in a position to intervene in case there is a move to censure Bangladesh by terming these elections undemocratic. The US may consider de-recognising the Hasina government. Hence, India should also undertake diplomatic efforts to contain US responses. India must not shy away from its responsibility to compensate for the democracy-deficit and towards the task of nation-building in its proximity.