A Free And Fair Election In Bangladesh Would Leverage India Maintaining Stability – OpEd


Bangladesh is heading toward its 12th National Parliament elections on January 7, despite protests from opposition parties demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister and the establishment of a caretaker government. Though the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the principal opposition, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, is boycotting the polls, 29 out of 44 registered political parties are participating. Along with the BNP, a total of 18 parties are keeping themselves away from elections. The Election Commission repeatedly reiterated its commitment to holding the election free and fair. as per constitutional obligations. 

Amid the opposition demand to appoint a caretaker government, the US and its Western allies constantly expressed their concerns over democratic conditions and holding a free and fair election in Bangladesh. In line with the opposition, they also pressed Hasina to appoint a caretaker government, a provision which has been removed from the Constitution. The United States has taken several measures, including imposition of a visa restriction to the individuals accused of undermining democratic processes.

The West’s continued concern over Bangladesh’s internal political processes has turned Bangladesh into a battleground for the Great Power rivalry. In response to the US’ growing concern, Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, accused the American Envoy Peter Haas of being involved in anti-government activities. Prior to that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented that the US and its allies are pursuing their interests in the region using the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy. Recently, the Ministry has also said that the United States may be attempting to destabilize Bangladesh along the lines of the ‘Arab Spring.’

China’s stance on the upcoming election remains consistent, which has also strongly criticized Western interest in Bangladeshi politics. Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen said that China wants Bangladesh’s elections to be held as per the constitution and for the relevant parties to resolve their differences and maintain political and social stability. 

Unlike other great powers, India had refused to join this conversation, saying that it is Bangladesh’s internal matter. However, India’s recent stance to the US has clearly indicated that it does not support other countries’ intervention regarding the Bangladesh election. Emphasizing regional stability, Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra commented that India had shared its “perspective” on the neighboring country “very clearly” during the India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. “The election in Bangladesh is their internal matter, and it is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their future,” said Kwatra.

India has left the politics of Bangladesh to the people of the country. India, being the world’s largest democracy, knows very well that only through a free and fair election can the people express their decision, which is a prerequisite for the stability of any country. As Bangladesh’s strategic proximity to the Bay of Bengal turned it into a geopolitical hotspot for great powers, India, as the biggest player in the region and closest neighbor, has always had a keen eye for Bangladesh. Like the rest of South Asia, India is cautious about China’s increasing influence in Dhaka. Many Indian analysts expressed their concern over China’s growing influence over Bangladesh, as Bangladesh has granted massive investment opportunities for China in the country. 

China has turned into Bangladesh’s largest trade partner, while bilateral trade is valued at $25 billion. Since 2016, the country has committed over $38 billion in investments to Bangladesh. It is the second among all sources of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Bangladesh. The growing trade relationship with China has made a groundbreaking contribution to Bangladesh’s progress in development over the past decade. The significance of this economic relationship lies behind the emergence of Bangladesh as a developing nation graduating LDC. A stable economy of the closest neighbor also turned into a boon for India.

But even though Bangladesh’s economic relations with China have increased, India remains Bangladesh’s strategic partner. Consequently, analysts say that while Bangladesh’s relationship with China is purely commercial, its relationship with India is totally strategic. Bangladesh is seen as India’s only reliable strategic partner in South Asia, which is evident in many Indian officials’ statements. Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Pranay Verma stated several times that India stands beside Bangladesh as a “steadfast partner” and is committed to supporting its aspirations for a “peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive” future.

Besides, India’s economic engagement with Bangladesh in trade and bilateral cooperation has also increased significantly. With $16 billion in Indian exports to Bangladesh, bilateral trade between the two countries has reached $18 billion, making Bangladesh India’s largest trading partner in South Asia. India has extended three lines of credit amounting to $8 billion for building transportation infrastructure, including roads, railways, shipping, and ports. In November, the two premiers, Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, jointly inaugurated the Agartala-Akhaura railway line, the Khulna-Mongla port line, and unit II of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Plant, marking a significant milestone in enhancing connectivity. 

Through a number of connectivity projects, Bangladesh has contributed to the development of underdeveloped North Eastern states of India. Bangladesh granted transit and transshipment through its two major seaports and Chittagong Shah Amanat International Airport to ease the transport of goods to the landlocked region. Besides, Bangladesh government’s action against anti-India insurgent groups played significant role in the stability of northeastern states. 

As a looming instability grasps over Bangladesh’s political sphere, India finds itself in a complex and delicate position. Nevertheless, despite the opposition’s repetitive calls, unlike its Western allies, India refused to intervene in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. As India remained silent over Bangladesh’s domestic political development, BNP senior joint secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi claimed that India had chosen to adopt “a position against the people of Bangladesh.” 

Despite the boycott of the opposition, Bangladesh’s Election Commission is determined to hold the election on January 7. The Election Commission has stressed that the election should be completed within the month of January to uphold the constitution. To continue the democratic process, India should support holding a free and fair election in Bangladesh. Violation of democratic process possesses the possibility of undemocratic governments coming to power, which Bangladesh has experienced several times in its history. The negative consequences of an undemocratic government in its closest and strategically important neighbor would pose a security threat to India.

In the neighborhood, Bangladesh remains the only country in South Asia that can be considered a dependable strategic partner for New Delhi, as the rest of the region has gradually slipped out from India’s sphere of influence. India failed to counterbalance China with smaller neighbors such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. Hence, Indian Military Commentator Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (Retd) writes that, as in most countries in its neighborhood, India has put all its eggs in one basket in Dhaka. 

Abdullah Sadi

Abdullah Sadi is a researcher on South Asia's political economy and international politics.

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