Sunday, August 21, 2011

Congress on decline: Should Bangladesh be worried?

Daily Sun
August 21, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A recent opinion poll carried by India Today should give Bangladesh, particularly its foreign policy makers food for thought and worry. The poll has predicted that the popularity of the Congress led UPA is declining. At the same time, the popularity of its nemesis the BJP led NDA is raising.

The poll figures are not yet dramatic. In the current poll conducted by India Today-Nielsen, the Congress led UPA has dropped from 242-256 seats projection in August last year to 212-222 which is a projected loss of 42 seats from the 259 seats the alliance won in 2009 elections. The consolation is that it is still ahead of the BJP led NDA whose projected progress has been to 174-184 seats in the latest poll which is up from 168-178 since last August polls and 20 seats more than the 159 seats it won in 2009.

However, on analysis, the small consolation for the Congress that the BJP led coalition is still behind withers away for there is a disconcerting trend that is emerging for the UPA. First, the NDA’s appeal to the people that was stagnant for quite some time is finally changing, although the gains are still small. Second, the decline of the UPA is proportionately more. In fact, analysts see a clear shift in the mood of the voters away from the Congress led UPA towards the BJP led NDA.

The trend apart, the reasons behind this shift in voters’ mood is what is should worry the Congress. The Congress led government is seriously bogged down in many issues that are leading to voters’ disenchantment with it. Corruption has become a major issue against the Congress led alliance. The 2Gs telecom scandal that has reportedly caused US$ 39 billion in lost revenue and the incarceration of the Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja has been named as the biggest corruption story of independent India.

Anna Hazare and India’s vibrant media have together ensured that the depth and extent of corruption reaches every corner of India that has also been instrumental in the decline of UPA’s popularity. In fact, Anna Hazari has embarrassed the government to such an extent that the Prime Minister is literally left with a hot potato, not sure how to handle him and the issue of corruption. The scepter of Anna Hazare, many suspects, may not allow the Prime Minister the peace of mind he needs on his forthcoming trip to Bangladesh.

Inflation has mixed with corruption to further erode the confidence of the people in the UPA. The same factor that pushed the NDA in the 2005 elections from power, namely economics ,is now working against the UPA. In 2005, NDA’s slogan “shining India” disenchanted the majority of the rural voters who got poorer in such an India. They refused to believe in shining India and voted the NDA out. This time it is inflation that is uniting voters across India against the ruling UPA. The mood in India is thus shifting from the ruling coalition UPA to the opposition NDA.

The UPA is also beginning to feel the consequences of poor leadership in sustaining its hold on power. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi who has been a major figure in making the Congress popular at the grass roots has lost a lot of her charm. The India Today-Nielsen polls have shown her popularity with the people at only 5% down from a high of 28% when she led the Congress to victory in 2005. Rahul Gandhi has made strides and according to the poll, he is ahead of all others as likely successor of the weak Manmohon Singh on both sides of the political divide.

The only bright spot at the moment for the Congress and its allies according to the India Today poll is the lack of a leader at the national level in the NDA to capitalize on the gains offered to them through the issues of corruption, inflation and lack luster leadership. The tag given by Mr. Advani to Mr. Manmohon Singh as the weakest Prime Minister in Indian history is beginning to harm the UPA’s chances in the next elections because under him, the government is visibly too weak to earn voters’ confidence. Nevertheless, the NDA would need to keep pushing the trend that would not be very easy as it too lacks leadership of national stature. The future at this moment looks assured for neither although the NDA is surely coming back into favour with the voters.

The polls could be a warning call for Bangladesh. It has fully cast its lot on the assumption that India would not just give it its rights on water sharing, on trade and on border issues but also help transform Bangladesh into a regional connectivity hub where even China and Myanmar together with northeast India, Bhutan and Nepal would be in the loop. In anticipation of great things to come, Bangladesh has given India complete assurance on security and written off its land transit card.

The future that the two countries have envisioned has left out totally the prospect of the NDA coming to power in India or the BNP in Bangladesh. In case of India, this issue is less of a problem given India’s strong democratic foundations. In Bangladesh’s case, the whole move would come to a standstill if the BNP comes to power. The BNP has made that clear in no uncertain terms.

However, India’s strong democracy notwithstanding, as far as improving relations with Bangladesh, the BJP could be a difficult customer. Its philosophy is based on supremacy of the Hindu religion where Bangladesh’s Muslim character does not fit naturally. Then there are issues of so-called 20 million illegal Bangladeshis in India that it wants to send back to Bangladesh by force. These are just two important issues but there are a host of others that make the BJP quite a different proposition than the Congress. Given the fact that Bangladesh is highly unlikely to receive fulfillment of Indian promises within Congress’ current term of office, it is not at all unlikely that Bangladesh could be left with a BJP led Government for fulfillment of promises made by the Congress.

The Bangladesh side is not known to have talked to the BJP on improving bilateral relations. On Bangladesh side, the ruling party has left the opposition out of the process of consultations. In fact, the Congress and the Awami League seem to have reached or in the process of reaching decisions for long term goals on the assumption that neither is in any threat of losing power!

On Indian side, no matter whether it is the BJP or Congress, India’s democratic institutions would help protect the country’s interests. It is not the same on our side. We have double faulted. First, we have left the opposition totally out of the equation. Second, we also do not know what would happen to our interests if the BJP forms the government in New Delhi in 3 years’ time. The India Today poll could be a warning call for us for caution although it may have come too late for we have ourselves closed that door or at least the ruling party has done so on behalf of the country.

Those in Bangladesh who are confident that the current Bangladesh-India initiatives would lead to a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations should hope and pray that the India Today poll’s prediction on a change of government in New Delhi turns out to be incorrect.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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