One lesson India should have learned from past experience in dealing with other countries, especially those in its neighbourhood, is that constructing a foreign policy based mostly around individual personalities is perilous, as once that individual is dislodged then his or her successor may simply undo everything.
Another problem with strengthening an individual perceived as being weak and unpopular simply because he or she is pro-India is that in the long run it can breed anti-India sentiment in the country.
With these points in mind, Indian policymakers should be careful to cultivate a range of political actors in a given country, especially if a particular leader looks like they are at risk of being too closely associated with India. Failure to do so means India risks that leader reversing policy to protect themselves politically. The India-Pakistan relationship of the late 1980s is a good example—much was expected of the Benazir Bhutto-Rajiv Gandhi meeting in 1988. But while at the time there looked to be a genuine thaw taking place, Bhutto did a complete about face when threatened domestically, delivering a number of vitriolic speeches against India in the process.
Sadly, India doesn’t seem to have learned anything. The clearest illustration of this is its Bangladesh policy, which hinges on Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister and leader of Bangladesh’s Awami League Party.
Many in India argue that such reliance is justified as Hasina is pro-India, and they point to her government’s consent to India’s longstanding demand to grant transit facilities to New Delhi as evidence of her good faith. Yet although there’s no doubt that Indo-Bangladesh ties are currently on a high, the goodwill seems based largely around the personal rapport between Hasina and Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
But what if Mukherjee, currently extremely influential in the ruling United Progressive Alliance, should leave office? Or if the current Indian government were ejected from power? Would Hasina still hold India in such high regard?
Conversely, there’s the question of whether, when Hasina is out of power, India be able to do business with the Bangladesh National Party, which is considered closer to China. This seems a genuine possibility as Hasina’s popularity wanes at home, not least because she is viewed by critics as an Indian puppet.
Shahid-Ul-Islam, a researcher at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore who specializes in Bangladesh, made this point recently in a blog entry on bilateral relations.
In an entry titled ‘Transit, the Great Wall of India and Indo-Bangladesh Relations,’ he wrote:
‘Against the will of common people, the foreign policy of the current government in Bangladesh focuses primarily on India at the cost of developing strong ties with other major powers. The masses desire better bilateral ties with New Delhi, but at the same time would not like Bangladesh to be treated as a “satellite state” of India.’
Even if Hasina does survive, India must seriously ask itself if she will continue to support ties with Delhi so strongly now that it’s clearly so politically dangerous for her to do so. Certainly, she will come under increasing pressure to shift tactics as her opponents seek to include an anti-India plank in their political platforms.
While India has been mature in assuaging the concerns of Bangladesh on issues like the shooting of Bangladeshis by the Border Security Forces, policymakers should still reach out to other political actors so as to ensure that there’s a genuine and sustainable improvement in bilateral relations, rather than an intense honeymoon followed by an acrimonious divorce.
As US statesman Henry Kissinger once said, ‘No foreign policy, no matter how ingenious, has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.’