New Delhi’s Strategic Challenges In Dhaka – Analysis


A Farcical Ritual

For the last four terms, the results of the general elections in Bangladesh have been decided months before a ballot was cast. The 2024 elections, held on 7 January, were no different. The Opposition parties boycotted the elections after their request that the elections should be held under a neutral caretaker government was rejected. Thousands of opposition leaders and activists had been arrested and were behind bars months before the polls went off.

A little over 40 percent of the voters cast their votes, choosing between the candidates of the ruling Awami League (AL) party and its proxy independent candidates. The Sheikh Hasina-led AL won 85 percent of the seats, with the rest going to others, who are aligned with the AL in some way or the other. A senior AL leader quipped satirically that PM Hasina will have to appoint the opposition leader in the parliament as well. 

The Endorsements and Rejection

Sheikh Hasina received a congratulatory message from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 8 January. Although Modi’s subsequent tweet did not contain the word ‘democracy’, it did congratulate PM Hasina ‘on her victory’ and the people of Bangladesh ‘for the successful conduct of elections’, looking forward to strengthening the ‘enduring and people-centric partnership’ between the two countries. During a press conference on 8 January, Sheikh Hasina expressed her gratitude terming India “a great friend of Bangladesh”, and her appreciation that Bangladesh has a “wonderful relationship with India”. 

On 11 January, PM Hasina received congratulatory messages from another paragon of non-democratic function, China, with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang pitching in. President Xi, in particular, referred to the ‘Belt and Road cooperation’ between the two countries and the advancing of the ‘China-Bangladesh strategic cooperative partnership to new levels’. 

The United States (U.S.), on the other hand, termed the elections as ‘neither free nor fair’. The United Nations Human Rights Chief, too, voiced concern over violence and reports of irregularities on the day of elections. 

Non-Promotion of Democracy

India, which boasts itself as a thriving democracy, strangely follows a ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy that abstains from promoting democracy anywhere in the world. Its policy prefers to do business with leaders who are firmly in the seats of power. A strong bilateral relationship with such authorities, New Delhi seems to believe, has the potential to fulfill India’s strategic objectives (though these seem vague). Its support for the Myanmar military junta, which usurped power through a coup in February 2021, is a telling example. The ousted pro-democracy National Unity Government (NUG)’s constant appeals for support have been repeatedly ignored by the BJP-led government.  

Bangladesh, however, isn’t very similar to Myanmar. The opposition consists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies, who are anti-India in their outlook. The BNP has a history of supporting insurgent groups operating in India’s northeast. It was during the BNP’s tenure that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) maintained a sizeable presence in Dhaka, conniving with anti-India terror groups and individuals to carry out explosions in major Indian cities. Only after the BNP was unseated by the AL were the northeastern insurgents reined in as the new regime cooperated with Indian authorities. India’s distrust of the BNP and its allies, therefore, is not unfounded.  

Thus, India strategically supports a process that ensures the continuity of a pro-India regime in Dhaka. This is crucial because India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy has produced little in the way of results in recent years. To the contrary, New Delhi has managed to surround itself with neighbours that aren’t exactly pro-India. Dhaka is probably the only exception.

It isn’t surprising then that New Delhi’s policy there has differed significantly from that of the Biden administration. The latter had issued a public call for “free and transparent” elections. In May 2023, a visa ban was imposed by the U.S. against individuals who were allegedly responsible for “undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh”. As Dhaka reached out to New Delhi, the latter reportedly raised the matter with U.S. officials, pointing to the importance of Bangladesh in efforts to ensure a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. The interlocutors also highlighted that U.S. actions may push Bangladesh closer to China.

The China Factor

India-China contestation has played out in various South Asian countries including Bangladesh. Dhaka has been a part of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) since 2016. Between 2018 and 2021, China’s annual Official Development Assistance (ODA) and Other Official Flows (OOF) commitments to Bangladesh increased from US$994 million to US$3.4 billion. In October 2023, Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the 82-kilometre-long Padma Bridge Rail Link, the country’s largest infrastructure project built under the BRI. 

Dhaka is also mulling the prospect of becoming a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade agreement by 15 nations, including China. India quit RCEP in 2019. The new government in Dhaka is expected to take a call on joining the RCEP soon. For India, the entry of countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka into RCEP could lead to heightened competition with China and other RCEP members, with ramifications on India’s trade dynamics.

Similar to India, Beijing came in support of Dhaka in its soured ties with the U.S. On 23 August 2023, PM Hasina and President Xi met on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, where the latter had extended China’s support to Dhaka ‘in safeguarding national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, and in opposing external interference’. 

Dhaka, which seeks to carefully balance its ties between China and India, terms its relations with China as part of a foreign policy marked by ‘Friendship to all and malice towards none’. For New Delhi, though, this is a matter of immense concern. While India can neither hope to replace nor compete with China in Bangladesh, China’s assertive outreach to Dhaka certainly obligates New Delhi to be on friendly terms with Bangladesh to prevent the latter from sliding completely into the lap of Beijing. Supporting Hasina’s authoritarian regime and her reelection is a trade-off.

Stepping on Thin Ice?

While support for AL has had little opposition within India, it is also in New Delhi’s interest to keep its eyes open to the political developments that Bangladesh may witness in the coming months. The reelection of Sheikh Hasina does not necessarily resolve Bangladesh’s political crisis nor will it pave the way for political stability in the country. The highly polarized politics likely will continue to witness significant levels of political violence and chaos. Despite decades of sustained GDP growth and improvements in social indicators, Bangladesh’s economy is now fragile. Political instability can make the recovery process difficult. 

All these can have potential repercussions on India’s security. It is in India’s interest that it uses its leverage in Dhaka to push for the start of a process of dialogue between the AL and BNP. Political stability in Dhaka can secure India’s interest in a far better way than a regime that seeks to hold on to power at any cost.  

  • About the author: Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya. This Policy Brief has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” project. 
  • Source: First published at Mantraya. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.

Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray

Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray served as a Deputy Director in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India and Director of the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM)’s Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati, Assam. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the South Asia programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore between 2010 and 2012. Routray specialises in decision-making, governance, counter-terrorism, force modernisation, intelligence reforms, foreign policy and dissent articulation issues in South and South East Asia. His writings, based on his projects and extensive field based research in Indian conflict theatres of the Northeastern states and the left-wing extremism affected areas, have appeared in a wide range of academic as well policy journals, websites and magazines.

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