Elections shine a spotlight on Delhi-Dhaka ties
Prof. Syed Munir Khasru
December 04, 2024
As Bangladesh prepares for its 12th parliamentary polls on January 7, speculation abounds on the impact of the election outcome on Dhaka’s relationship with Delhi. From historic landmarks such as the 2015 land boundary agreement to lows during 2001-2006, when a coalition led by the current Opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was in office, India-Bangladesh relations have gone through periodical ups and downs. Bangladesh emerged as India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia crossing $15 billion in 2022 and is a major recipient of Indian foreign direct investment, exceeding $3.5 billion in 2021. The strengthening of economic ties highlights pragmatic considerations that go beyond political rhetoric and challenge simplistic binaries.
Bangladesh Elections 2024: A supporter of Bangladesh Awami League party carries a giant portrait of Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh.(AP)PREMIUM
Bangladesh Elections 2024: A supporter of Bangladesh Awami League party carries a giant portrait of Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh.(AP)
The ruling Awami League (AL) in Bangladesh is historically perceived as closely aligned with India, while the BNP is thought to harbour anti-India sentiments. A deeper look reveals an intricate tapestry of cooperation and conflict underpinning the ties. The widely held belief that the AL and India share a deep ideological affinity, at times oversimplifies a relationship grounded in strategic realities and mutual interests.
Dhaka’s collaboration with Delhi in cracking down on insurgents operating from Bangladesh, for instance, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), is cited as evidence of the political alignment of AL with the Indian political establishment. However, the reality is more complex as the Sheikh Hasina government faced challenges from radical Islamist groups like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB). It was a convergence of mutual interests, especially safeguarding the stability of both the border and internal security.
Landmark agreements, such as the 2015 land boundary agreement, are indicative of a relationship founded on pragmatism rather than ideological camaraderie. Similarly, the coastal shipping deal in 2015 opened new sea routes, boosting bilateral trade volumes, while the 2017 international rail links deal restored crucial railway links, improving overall connectivity and trade relations.
However, challenges persist. The Teesta water-sharing agreement remains unresolved, hindered by domestic opposition in West Bengal. The Tipaimukh Dam project raises Bangladesh’s concern about downstream impacts, with environmental assessments yet to allay fears. Border killings, allegedly due to the excessive use of force by security forces, continue to be a recurring issue. The AL’s alignment with India, oversimplified as a political and ideological embrace, is in reality rooted in a pragmatic understanding of shared strategic interests. The complexities of their collaboration, as evidenced by successes as well as ongoing challenges, underscore the need for a more balanced perspective on this crucial relationship in South Asia.
Apprehensions of an anti-India backlash in the event of a BNP coming to power — the BNP has now decided to boycott the elections — are based on historical precedents and nationalistic rhetoric. The BNP’s 2001-2006 term in office saw a rise in radical Islamist groups like Harkat-ul Jihad and JMB, fostering concerns over increased anti-India attacks and strained bilateral relations. However, a nuanced examination unveils complexities as the BNP is not a monolithic entity and has both moderate and hardline factions, with varying stances on India. This dynamic is underscored by events like the 2004 arms haul in Chittagong, revealing a massive cache of weapons that raised questions about illicit arms trafficking, further complicating ramifications for regional stability as then Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi alleged that the arms consignment was meant for the separatist ULFA guerillas operating in the state.
During an interview in 2014, when asked what she would have done differently than Sheikh Hasina on relations with India, BNP leader Khaleda Zia said: “Unlike the Awami League government, I would have sought mutuality of gains in our bilateral relations in all areas… A future BNP government will encourage greater people-to-people contact... to diversify our relations and cooperation in all fields”.
Moving beyond a simplistic pro- and anti-India binary is imperative in understanding Bangladesh’s political landscape. The AL, despite fostering friendly ties with Delhi, has prioritised Bangladesh’s economic interests and welcomed infrastructure projects financed by China, India’s foremost regional rival. Similarly, the BNP’s strong rhetoric is sobered by pragmatic acknowledgement of economic interdependence. Recognising these complexities is essential for a better understanding of the dynamics that shape Bangladesh’s political leadership relations with India.
A foundation of clear-eyed, fact-based assessments of each other’s policies and actions is indispensable to improving Delhi-Dhaka relations. Communication channels engaging various political parties and stakeholders across borders can help dispel misgivings and misperceptions. Shared interests in regional trade, investment, connectivity, energy cooperation, climate resilience, maritime security, and economic integration should serve as the cornerstone of collaboration. This is an opportune moment for the leadership in both countries to reflect a vision that is progressive and mutually beneficial, recognising the nuanced interplay of economic, strategic, and demographic factors for both India and Bangladesh.