By Jaishree Balasubramanian and Kamran Reza Chowdhury
India is hoping the Awami League will retain power in Bangladesh’s upcoming election because it sees the incumbent government in Dhaka as key to its national security interests, including regional competition with China and counter-terrorism, analysts said.
New Delhi is closely watching Bangladesh’s Dec. 30 general election – the next-door neighbor’s first competitive parliamentary polls in a decade – according to observers on both sides of the border. Indian officials, however, declined to say whether their government was backing a particular party in the race.
“The Awami League maintains very warm relations with India. Bangladesh-India relationship has been at a different height. So, India will want the Awami League to continue,” Dhaka-based defense analyst Sakhawat Hossain, a retired army brigadier general, told BenarNews.
Sreeram Chauli, an observer based in India, expressed a similar view.
“Historically, New Delhi has a bias towards Sheikh Hasina,” said Chauli, a professor of international affairs and dean at Jindal University, referring to Bangladesh’s 71-year-old prime minister who is seeking a third consecutive term through the imminent polls.
“Many agreements have been reached between India and Bangladesh under her leadership,” he told Benar.
And according to a recent report published by East Asia Forum, an online platform for analysis on political and security affairs in the Asia-Pacific region, Delhi wants the status quo of Bangladeshi government to stay intact. The forum is run out of the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University in Canberra.
“India would be appalled if any party other than Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League were to rule Bangladesh,” said the April 2018 report. “The view from Delhi is very short term: the strategy is to keep the Awami League in power while trying to block growing Chinese influence.”
Indian officials declined to answer questions from BenarNews about New Delhi’s stakes in the Bangladeshi polls.
“We view the elections in Bangladesh as an internal matter of Bangladesh,” said Raveesh Kumar, spokesman of India’s Ministry of External Affairs. “I don’t think it is appropriate for the ministry … to comment on the internal affairs of our friendly neighbor country.”
Another foreign ministry official, who requested anonymity, told BenarNews that the government would prefer not to issue any comments to avoid influencing election results.
India’s stakes in Bangladesh
India shares a 4,156-km (2,582-mile) border in its northeast with Bangladesh, a neighboring country that is important to New Delhi’s geopolitical and security interests, analysts said.
Among those concerns, India is vying with regional rival China for strategic and economic influence in Bangladesh, they said.
“India and China have been competing for regional hegemony and dominance over the maritime economy. As part of their regional power game, they want to enhance their influence in Bangladesh,” Professor Ameena Mohsin, who teaches international relations at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.
“China has apparently extended its influence around India,” she said. “India does not want to see anything happen in South Asia which may threaten its regional hegemony.”
According to Hossain, the retired general, “Bangladesh is a route country of the One Belt One Road initiative of China, but India does not like it. Why? Because China has apparently encircled India.”
Hossain was referring to Beijing’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure strategy that strives to build a vast network of roads, railway lines and ports in South and South Asia, allowing China to trade more easily with European countries via the Indian Ocean and Central Asia.
As part of that plan, China has been investing in infrastructure projects in three countries that sit on India’s western, southern and eastern borders: Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
But while Hasina’s Awami party maintains warms ties with India, it is simultaneously cultivating close ones with Beijing, Hossain said. Traditionally, Hossain noted, China has had a warm relationship with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is now in the opposition but has held power multiple times.
“Sheikh Hasina also maintains excellent relations with China,” he added.
After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka in 2016, Bangladesh has transformed a formerly adversarial relationship with Beijing into an enduring strategic partnership, a development closely watched by India, analysts said.
Bangladesh had an initial bitter relationship with China when Beijing supported Pakistan during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Islamabad. Beijing also campaigned in the early 1970s against Dhaka’s bid to join the United Nations, historians said.
But Bangladesh and China eventually established diplomatic relations, starting 1976. A year later, military ruler Gen. Ziaur Rahman provided a major impetus to the relationship by visiting Beijing, the first trip by any Bangladeshi head of state to China.
Nowadays, China has grown into Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner, and it has also become a development ally for Bangladesh as a major financial sponsor of roads, railways, power plants and airport projects. China exported about U.S. $16 billion worth of goods to Bangladesh, although it imported only U S. $750 million in 2016-17, according to official figures.
As part of Jinping’s visit two years ago, China promised $24 billion in economic assistance to Bangladesh, mostly as lines of credit for 24 projects, burnishing its image as a friend.
India, which played a major role in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 through military intervention, has also developed closer ties with Dhaka during the past few years.
Since the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh in 2015, India has cultivated a tighter partnership with Dhaka with unprecedented bilateral deals on trade and investments.
India, for instance, has provided duty-free access of Bangladeshi garments to the Indian market, allowing Dhaka to increase its exports to India last year from U.S. $130 million to $280 million.
Friendly and stable
Despite undertaking moves to fertilize ties with Beijing while balancing relations with India, Hasina has received praise from her admirers in New Delhi for cracking down on suspected rebels from northeastern Indian provinces, many of whom had taken shelter in Bangladesh.
“So, India will expect the Awami League to win the polls,” Hossain said, referring to the ruling party led by Hasina. “The Awami League has flushed out all anti-Indian groups fighting in the northeastern states from Bangladesh soil. So, New Delhi would expect Hasina to continue.”
Meanwhile, although rights groups have criticized what they view as Hasina’s growing authoritarianism over the years, New Delhi-based analysts say India – the world’s most populous democracy – “is caught in a bind” because the Hindu minority in Muslim-majority Bangladesh feels safer with Hasina in power.
“We want to see a free and fair election there. Sheikh Hasina has been opposed to fundamentalism, and is more secular,” Chauli, the dean at Jindal University, said.
And according to Pinak Chakravarti, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), an Indian think tank, “elections are a part of a democratic process, and we welcome it.”
But, he also told BenarNews, “New Delhi wants to see in Bangladesh a friendly government and a stable government.”