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India Needs to Hedge its Bets in Bangladesh

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India Needs to Hedge its Bets in Bangladesh

Its all-out support for the ruling Awami League for decades, even ignoring its undemocratic governance, and reluctance to engage other parties could prove costly.

India Needs to Hedge its Bets in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi ahead of talks at Hyderabad House, New Delhi, India, September 6, 2022.

Credit: X/Narendra Modi

During the G-20 Summit in New Delhi last month, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi exalted the virtues of democracy and diversity, even calling his country “the mother of democracy.”

But in Bangladesh, India’s neighbor to the east, the Modi government is supporting the increasingly authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. And to add a dash of comedy to this otherwise grave saga, the regime in Dhaka is uncomfortably close to China, India’s biggest regional rival.

Putting all eggs in one basket is a bad strategy, something foreign policymakers consciously try not to adopt in their dealings with other countries. But for a long time, this is what India’s Ministry of External Affairs has done in Bangladesh. India has played favorites in Bangladesh and its selection in Dhaka for decades has been the Awami League (AL). Indeed, India does not have other political actors in Bangladesh that it can lean on.

India’s strong support to the AL government has encouraged the latter to violate human rights and jail human rights defenders under a draconian law with impunity. Democratic institutions that should guarantee a peaceful transition of power have been destroyed under the AL’s watch.

In fact, Indian support to the AL government despite its undemocratic functioning goes beyond the allegory of Mother India turning a blind eye to her errant child.

In the run-up to the 2014 general election, India sent its then-Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh to convince the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to participate in the election. The BNP had demanded that elections be held by a neutral caretaker government. With the AL refusing to concede the BNP’s demand, the party threatened to boycott the election. Singh failed to convince the BNP to change course.

Undeterred, Singh went to Hussain Mohammed Ershad, former Bangladesh president and leader of the Jatya Party, with the argument that if his party did not participate in the election, fundamentalist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami would come to power. The Jamaat has rarely won more than 5 percent of votes in elections.

The argument was strange to say the least because only four months before Singh’s Dhaka mission, Bangladesh’s high court declared the Jamaat illegal, saying it conflicted with the country’s secular constitution.

The Jatya Party eventually decided to participate in the election, giving the farce some semblance of dignity. Boycotted by all the major political parties, the election saw 153 contestants elected unopposed to the country’s 300-member parliament.

The BNP and other major political parties participated in the next general election held in 2018. However, like the 2014 exercise, this was also heavily rigged.

While Western powers called for a probe into election irregularities and violence, Modi, however, was quick to telephone Hasina to congratulate her on her electoral victory. The other major country to congratulate her was China.

Underlying India’s support to successive AL regimes are security and strategic concerns.

India’s northeastern states, which are linked to the rest of the country through the narrow Siliguri Corridor, are landlocked. Bangladesh and Myanmar could provide the region with access to the sea. The Northeast has also been an insurgency-wracked region for decades and anti-India insurgent groups are known to have taken shelter in Bangladesh.

Successive AL governments have extradited to India the leaders of several insurgent groups and acted to ensure that these outfits cannot use Bangladeshi territory.

For India, therefore, Bangladesh’s present political status quo is crucial to keep its ethnically diverse, politically restive, and insurgency-prone Northeast calm.

The Indian establishment’s friendship with the AL dates back to Bangladesh’s Independence War in 1971, when India actively helped Bangladesh’s fledgling government-in-exile with military and diplomatic support. The relationship with AL is therefore personal and emotional as well.

That explains why long after the end of most of the insurgencies in its northeastern states, India hasn’t taken the trouble to make new friends in Bangladesh. This reluctance has resulted in a strange marriage of convenience between India and the AL. Sadly, this is forged at the expense of Bangladesh’s democracy.

India must hedge its bets in Bangladesh. Should the Awami League be ousted from power electorally or otherwise, India might find itself without partners to engage with. This would be disastrous as India has large economic, security, and strategic interests in Bangladesh, a country with which it shares the world’s fifth-longest land border.  It must initiate talks with Bangladesh’s major political actors without further delay.

Meanwhile, the Chinese influence in Bangladesh is growing fast. China dislodged India as Bangladesh’s top trading partner in 2015, a position India enjoyed for four decades. Eight years on, Bangladesh still imports more goods from China than from India.

Not only Chinese commodities, Bangladesh’s economy has also become addicted to Chinese money. It has a total debt obligation of  $17.5 billion to China, which is mainly invested in white elephant infrastructure projects that, along with the decline in the remittance flow, could lead to an economic crisis in the country.

To extricate itself from this situation, Bangladesh entered into an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan program worth $4.7 billion. But the country has failed to meet two of the six targets set by the IMF, one of which is mandatory for the bailout. If Bangladesh isn’t successful in securing the IMF loan, how its depleting foreign reserve is going to cope with the shock is up for debate.

Then there is the problem of the repayment of the Chinese loans. Unlike the IMF or the World Bank, China gives its borrowers a short period to repay loans. Interest rates are also higher. In the last fiscal year, Bangladesh’s loan repayment stood at $2.74 billion, a 37 percent increase from the year before, and in this fiscal year, it will go as high as $3.28 billion.

There is a real risk of Bangladesh becoming a failed state. A possible economic meltdown amid the ongoing political unrest could have a spillover effect in the Indian states that border Bangladesh.

The ongoing instability has understandably worried the United States. The Biden administration has stood firm in favor of a free, fair, and inclusive election in Bangladesh. Recently Washington announced a new visa restriction policy for any “Bangladeshi individual believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”

There are reasons to believe that the measure might help bring Bangladesh back to the democratic path — a lot of local plutocrats have heavily invested their ill-gotten wealth in U.S. real estate. The sanctions will rob Bangladesh’s so-called oligarchs of their unfettered access to a plush lifestyle in the West.

The United States’ new visa policy might be followed by harsher measures. In a speech at Bangladesh’s Defense Services Command and Staff College, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas said that the U.S. wants to see a Bangladesh committed to democracy, transparency, pluralism tolerance, good governance, and respect for human rights.

Bangladesh’s democracy plays an important role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific pivot.

The country is key for China’s strategic advances into the Indian Ocean. In the event of a naval blockade in the South China Sea, China will need either Bangladesh or Myanmar or both for access to the sea. Therefore China doesn’t want to see Western-style democracy in Bangladesh as it runs the risk of dethroning its all-weather friend, the AL.

There is only one way left to contain China in Bangladesh, and that is letting democracy gain a strong foothold in the country.