Sunday, May 25, 2014

Indian elections and Bangladesh’s reactions


 Indian elections and Bangladesh’s reactions


M. Serajul Islam

 The Indian elections have seen some weird reactions in Bangladesh. The people, who do not seem to matter any more in the country’s politics, are concerned and worried that a Hindu fundamentalist party has come to power in India. To add to their fear, that party had stated that if elected, it would “push back” 20 million alleged Bangladeshis. To add further to why the people are concerned and worried, the BJP is fundamentally opposed to the LBA deal and with the Trinamool sweep in Paschim Bangla; the Teesta deal would also become a distant hope for Bangladesh.

The Awami League led government expressed no concerns at the change. Instead, it made efforts to convince the people that it would be business as usual with the new government and Bangladesh-India relations would even reach newer heights. In a congratulatory message to Narendra Modi, Sheikh Hasina compared the BJP’s mandate as similar to what the AL received on January 5 for such optimism. The AL leaders have nevertheless abused and insulted the BNP because it thought the party was happy and excited at the BJP victory. They called the BNP a party of “ahammaks”’ idiots and goats for its happiness and excitement at the BJP victory.

The BNP leaders also did not articulate the public concerns. BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia congratulated Narendra Modi in a message. BNP leaders in private were joyed by the defeat of the Congress. Its joy was primarily because it expected that the BJP government in New Delhi would no longer support the Awami League the way the Congress government had; support that kept the BNP from coming to power. The BNP was also happy knowing that the powers of the Indian President would be clipped and he would no more have the leverage to make the interests of the AL and Sheik Hasina, his own and those of India. The BNP was happy knowing further that SS Menon, the National Security Adviser who had put the Congress’ policy of backing the AL to any extent to keep it in power, would also be gone.

However, neither party has grasped what the change in New Delhi would mean to Bangladesh as both are looking at the change through their respective prisms. There is a sense of nervousness in the Awami League and for good reasons. Its BNP bashing underlines that nervousness. The clipping of the President’s powers and the departure of SS Menon would bring about a qualitative change in New Delhi’s Bangladesh policy. The new government would also review the Congress government’s policy of placing the interests of the AL ahead of Bangladesh that has affected India’s acceptance in the country and also in that context, review the positive changes in the BNP towards India. Finally, the BJP has no historic ties with the Awami League to set aside the legitimacy issue of the AL led government and its growing unpopularity in the country to pursue a long term policy with it like the Congress did.

The BJP would nevertheless do nothing to make the BNP smile. It would continue business as usual with Bangladesh but if the AL were to expect that the new government would consider its interests the way the Congress led government had, then the business between New Delhi and Dhaka would not be as usual. There would be a new concern for the AL led government from Washington. New Delhi and Washington had fallen apart on the issue of elections in Bangladesh where the Congress government had argued the need of bringing the AL back in power at any cost for tackling fundamentalist forces. Narendra Modi would need the United States for his own credibility and also the government’s particularly with its fundamentalist background. Therefore, the United States that still insists in restoring the issue of legitimacy of the Bangladesh government could strike a deal on Bangladesh with the Modi government.

The reactions of the AL and BNP have not allowed a proper assessment of the Indian elections in Bangladesh. The Indian voters have achieved a quiet revolution through the elections. They have rejected the elitism in Indian politics by dumping the scion of the Nehru/Gandhi lineage for a tea seller’s son. The voters have also underlined the Hindu character of India rejecting secularism that the Congress had tried to place as the face of India. The elections have underlined that the phase of control of the centre by the regional parties is coming to an end. That would have worked well for Bangladesh had it not been that on the issues where a strong centre would have been helpful for Bangladesh to over-rule the province, namely the LBA and Teesta deals, the BJP and provincial interests are the same.

The BJP had lost the 2004 elections over many issues where its election slogan “shining India” had caused the maximum damage. The BJP had chosen that slogan encouraged with the excellent health of the economy. That proved to be its downfall because rural India saw very little shining in their fate. They thought the slogan taunted them and voted the BJP out of power. This time, the BJP chose Hindu fundamentalism in place of “shining India” and deliberately went against the Muslims to consolidate the Hindu vote. The BJP also promised that under Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, the whole of India would see the same success that he had achieved for Gujarat during his 13-year tenure to benefit both the rich and the poor. The blend of religion and economics was successfully executed with the financial support of India’s corporate world that would now stand to benefit with the most from the most business savvy politician in India who would now be the new Prime Minister of the country. The failure of the Congress over a whole range of issues of governance where unbridled corruption was a major one together with the aloofness and high-handedness of Sonia Gandhi and lack of appeal of Rahul Gandhi were the other main reasons for Congress’s dumping in the elections.

The BJP would now be seriously involved fulfilling the election promises made to the Indians to have too much time to bother about Bangladesh. The huge mandate would now also be an additional pressure. Nevertheless, the huge mandate would also give it the authority to balance on the election promises by taking more realistic view on those promises. In that endeavour, the primary concern of the Modi government would be with the economy where the new Prime Minister who otherwise has had no experience in Central Government would bring to New Delhi experience that he has earned by successfully leading Gujarat not just to the attention of India but of the world.

Though Hindu fundamentalism was a big issue in the BJP’s victory, the new government would not pursue the agenda with any degree of seriousness knowing it would now divide the country where it would need unity for India’s economic development. In fact, the new government is now likely to extend a friendly face to the Muslims in search of national unity. On neighbours too, and that includes Bangladesh, the Narendra Modi government would like to seek cooperation and in that context, it may not pursue the “push back” of alleged Bangladeshis beyond rhetoric.

The BJP government is not likely to make major changes in terms of policies except change focus and priorities but would certainly endeavour to bring the government closer to the people and free it from the utter depths of corruption to which it had sunk. In that endeavour, the fact that he is a tea seller’s son is something that Narendra Modi would neither himself like to forget nor let his administration to do so. For Bangladesh, the Modi government would undoubtedly pursue a policy to suit India’s interests above all else without making the mistake the Congress did by choosing a party over the country to conduct those relations. Of course, the most important message for Bangladesh out of the Indian elections is to take lessons from the way the election was held where the people were able to vote as they wished freely, fairly and in a transparent manner.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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