By Delwar Hossain*
People from every corner of Bangladesh closely observed the 2016 assembly elections in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. These two state elections in India had generated huge interest and enthusiasm in Bangladesh about the future direction of the Bangladesh-India bilateral. Social media, print and electronic media widely covered the results of the aforementioned elections. The policy circle in Dhaka was, of course, highly curious about the outcomes of the elections. Led by Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) bagged 211 of the 294 seats, while the Congress-Left combined won 76 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) created history in Assam by winning two-thirds majority in the 126-member House and winning 86 seats along with its allies. The Congress, led by Tarun Gogoi, managed only 26 seats. The BJP stormed to power in Assam for the first time. The Congress was the worst hit in losing power in Assam, which it had ruled for 15 long years.
What does it mean for Bangladesh-India relations? The central governments in India and Bangladesh both were curious and worried enough to follow the poll verdict in these two states for two principal reasons. First, the central government of India led by the BJP was interested in bolstering its political presence in these two critical states that border Bangladesh. Basically, it is the domestic political interest of the ruling party. On the other hand, Bangladesh was interested in the issues and positions of state political parties that will have implications for bilateral relations. Particularly, two widely discussed issues – the signing of the Teesta water deal and the alleged illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India – that have been source of disappointment for the people of Bangladesh despite strong friendship between the two countries, may be influenced by the results of the elections.
Many analysts in Bangladesh have assessed that the results of the West Bengal and Assam elections are not good news for Bangladesh. The new chief minister in Assam promised to seal the Bangladesh-Assam border completely and to deport the allegedly illegal Bangladeshis from India. As revealed in the media, New Delhi has already extended their cooperation to the Assam state government to implement the electoral agenda of BJP-led coalition government in the state.
People are speculating that a new level of tension will emerge between Bangladesh and India over the actions of the newly inducted Assamese government led by the BJP. The same group of people also strongly believe that the return to power of Mamata Banerjee’s TMC by a landslide victory will further delay the process of signing the Teesta water deal in the near future. With a massive popular mandate on Mamata’s leadership in the West Bengal, her government may continue with the same stubbornness against the Teesta deal this time with more confidence. These are disturbing developments to the people of Bangladesh, particularly to those who are against strong and friendly ties with India.
On the other hand, a strong perspective is that there is a scope for optimism about the Teesta water deal with a positive role by the Mamata Banerjee’s government. There was a view held by many experts over the past few years that Mamata could change her position after the crucial assembly elections in West Bengal that was due in 2016. She had a high stake in political calculation in her state vis-à-vis the Left and Congress forces. She would not have taken any risks before the elections with the Teesta issue. Now, Mamata can reassess her position as it is a historical fact that West Bengal always supported an amicable and just sharing of waters between Bangladesh and India. The support of the West Bengal government was crucial to sign the Ganges water sharing deal in 1996. People in Bangladesh are more optimistic about Mamata’s cooperation about the Teesta deal. The improved relations between Mamata and the Modi government, the proactive role of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and Mamata’s commitment to the people of Bangladesh may expedite the process of the Teesta deal.
Regarding Assam, the civil society and policy circles in Bangladesh tend to subscribe to the political pragmatism of new leadership in the state. Electoral politics demands rhetoric and hyperbole in most cases. The issue of Bangladesh figured in Assamese politics as part of electoral politics since the question of Bangladesh migration is intrinsically embedded with historical reality since the transition from British India to an independent Bangladesh. The issue of minorities is a hot one in electoral politics as seen in many countries in the world. Political leaders love to grab these issues to accrue political gains. Interestingly, the same political parties behave otherwise when they come to power.
When there are matters related to bilateral relations, the state government is bound to act in a restrained and rational manner. National interests and global norms are the fundamental determinants in this regard. Besides, the numbers of Muslims in Assam is significant. The opposition political parties have different views about the so called migration issue in Assam. Therefore, state politics in Assam and bilateral relations between Bangladesh and India will continue to determine the actions of the Assam government in the future. For example, during the ratification of India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), the then Assam government and the BJP as opposing parties altered their positions in the greater interests of India.
The critical issue is that both Bangladesh and India have worked hard over the past eight years to transform their bilateral relations into a solid rock of friendship; and no forces can reverse it. There has already been a paradigm shift in Dhaka-New Delhi relations, which is largely focused on Northeast India and West Bengal.
Transit facilities, energy cooperation and bandwidth export are the frontier issues that will bring both countries further closer. Strategic considerations like the China factor, the rise of terrorism, sub-regional cooperation, and maritime cooperation, are crucial for both the countries. Against this backdrop, state governments in the bordering regions have limits to maneuver controversial issues to their favour or benefit. In fact, India must act together to resolve outstanding issues with Bangladesh to create a zone of prosperity instead of tensions and rivalry.
* Delwar Hossain
Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University
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