Sunday, May 18, 2014

The BJP's victory and Bangladesh


Posted: 19 May, 2014
The BJP's victory and Bangladesh
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League (AL) general secretary has called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) "ahammaks" for "gloating" at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victory. A senior AL leader has asked the BNP not to jump like goats.  Prime Minister's international affairs adviser has said Bangladesh-India relations would move forward in the direction set by the Congress. The foreign minister has said that the Bangladesh-India relations are time tested and therefore the relations would not change. The communications minister has also asked the BNP not to get excited.

Why is the AL reacting this way?  From what has come out in the media, the major reaction of the BNP to the Indian elections has been the BNP chairperson's congratulatory message to Narendra Modi. The party general secretary has said something to the effect that the BNP hopes of good relations between Bangladesh and India under the BJP government. Therefore, the reactions of the AL leaders on the BJP victory have been, to say the least, curious ones. It has on the one hand taken this victory to abuse the BNP and on the other, to state unilaterally and forcefully that nothing would change in Bangladesh-India relations. Both expressions, mutually contradictory, make little sense unless one was to examine how the results have shaken the AL's confidence.

Neither the AL nor the BNP has touched substance about what has been a major revolution in India. A tea seller's son has become the prime minister defeating the scion of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty in what was in effect a presidential election in terms of how Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi fought for the hearts and minds of the Indian voters. That tea seller's son also blatantly and unashamedly used Hindu fundamentalism to defeat India's claim as a country based firmly on the secular principles. To boot all these, Narendra Modi has been called by Mamata Banarjee as "the Butcher of Gujarat" even during the elections for his 2002 role in the Gujarat riots when under his watch 2000 were killed, mostly Muslims in Hindu-Muslim riots.

Narendra Modi has not been complimentary about Bangladesh in his election campaign. He has strongly stated that he would "push back" 20 million alleged Bangladeshis in India, a view that was intensely anti-Bangladesh and highly provocative. The BJP was responsible for defeating the Congress-led government's efforts to deliver to Bangladesh the Teesta and the LBA (Land Boundary Agreement) deals. During the campaign, Narendra Modi did not express any intention that a BJP government would deliver these deals to Bangladesh. Therefore, going by his anti-Muslim and anti-Bangladesh rhetoric, both the AL and the BNP together with the people of Bangladesh should be scared, worried and apprehensive at the massive victory of an anti-Bangladeshi Narendra Modi as the new Prime Minister of a Hindu fundamentalist BJP.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh is not a normal country and the reaction in Bangladesh to the BJP victory underlines that fact as clear as daylight. Nevertheless, as the cliché goes, there is always a method in madness. The reasons for such strange reaction in Bangladesh to the BJP's victory are not hard to uncover. The Congress-led government has had historic relations with the Awami League. Since January 2009, the Congress-led government had looked upon the interests of the AL-led government like its own. In fact, when the AL looked doomed to lose a free and fair election, the Congress-led government went against majority opinion in Bangladesh and international opinion as well and ensured that the AL returned to power. It also put its own relations with Washington on line to get the AL back in power.

Added to that, the Indian president had looked upon the Awami League and, more importantly, Sheikh Hasina with great affection. In the Indian system, the president is a figurehead like the Bangladesh President. However, Pranab Mukherjee was anything but a figurehead in the Congress government. Pranab Mukherjee was the de facto Prime Minister as well under the Congress government because Manmohon Singh was one of the weakest-ever prime ministers of India. It was an open secret that under the Congress-led government the Indian president called the shots on major issues related to India's relations with Bangladesh.

That equation would now be gone and this would take away a massive leverage for the Awami League with New Delhi. The Awami League would also lose another major leverage with the change. One of the major architects of Congress’ Bangladesh policy, whose major focus was to ensure that the Awami League remained in power at any cost, was Shiv Sankar Menon, the National Security Adviser. He would no longer be around to sponsor and patronize the Awami League. These developments in New Delhi, which would happen no matter what, would not be the only worries for the Awami League. The AL government would now face pressure from New Delhi on a new and volatile issue of the alleged Bangladeshis in India without getting any hope on the Teesta and the LBA deals. That should dampen the prospects of "business as usual" between Dhaka and New Delhi under the BJP.

Therefore, the departure of the Congress has left the AL-led government with too many worries - like someone over-dependent on parents, becoming suddenly orphaned. The Congress was a life insurance policy for the AL that has suddenly and dramatically turned valueless. That explains why its leaders are abusing the BNP. They think that the BNP is happy with the AL's current predicament, which is adding salt to its injury. The AL leaders' other reaction that nothing will change in Bangladesh-India relations under the BJP government is no doubt one to reassure themselves to deal with a serious insecurity that has gripped them at having lost their major insurance policy in the Indian elections.

If the BNP were expecting that the Modi government would help it out by ensuring a new election in Bangladesh that would be premature. However, it is the AL that is saying that the BNP is expecting that way; no BNP leader has made such a statement publicly - not yet. Therefore, that the AL is making such a statement is also evidence of its own weakness and sense of insecurity that the new government in New Delhi could go ahead and take such a course in conducting its relations with Bangladesh. The Awami League knows it better than anyone else that the January 05 elections have not given its government legitimacy and that it was the Congress' policy of supporting it right or wrong that had returned it to power. The BJP would have no reason to support the AL to the extent the Congress had done.

Nevertheless, the stand of the AL and that of the BNP as perceived by the AL notwithstanding, Narendra Modi would have too many major issues at hand to spend too much time on Bangladesh. However, the new team for conducting Bangladesh-India relations in New Delhi would see far too many faults in the way the Congress team conducted these relations.
The policy of Congress to put the Awami League ahead of Bangladesh has pushed India's acceptance in the country to its nadir. The new team would also not fail to see that the Congress brought the AL to power through an election that has not been accepted by the people of Bangladesh and the mess that the AL has made of governance as a consequence. It would also not fail to see that the Congress' decision to back the AL has also put on line its relations with Washington.

All this would in no way lead to what the BNP must be hoping although it has not stated so publicly - that the BJP would ensure new elections in Bangladesh. The BNP would have to ensure that itself. In such an effort, the BNP would not find New Delhi as actively, openly and blatantly backing the AL as the Congress government had done.

The Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, however, is trying to spin the change in New Delhi the way the AL leaders are - that under the BJP Government; it would be business as usual. To convince the people of Bangladesh, the High Commission has released to the media the details of the US$ 1.0 billion soft loan without talking about the pending deals and the issue of the alleged Bangladeshis in India. It appears that the Indian mission is feeling the same kind of insecurity as the AL with the change in New Delhi as it actively promoted the Congress' policy in Bangladesh to keep it under New Delhi's leash. This will certainly be reviewed by the BJP government.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email id is

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