India-Bangladesh Relationship Under Modi 3.0 Won’t Change, But …

India-Bangladesh Relationship Under Modi 3.0 Won’t Change, But …

Whether the Indian opposition will use its power to scrutinize Modi’s regional foreign policy and India-Bangladesh relations remains to be seen.

India’s 18th general election has resulted in a “new” government that is much like the “old” one, both with Narendra Modi at the helm. Yet, many are pondering whether there will be any changes in its posture toward and relationships with its neighbors.

The question is premised on three considerations. The first is that the BJP, especially Modi, is likely to do some introspection after a serious decline of support in the poll. Second, two terms of Modi had witnessed India’s influence diminish vis-a-vis China in the region, which is ostensibly a failure of Modi’s much-touted “Neighborhood First” foreign policy. The third is the strength of the opposition INDIA bloc, which will be able to pose challenges to the BJP-led government on its domestic agenda and foreign policy intents.

In Bangladesh, those who view the Modi government’s unqualified support to Sheikh Hasina as a catalyst of serious democratic backsliding, are hoping that these conditions will make Modi’s third term different. They won’t be holding their breath, however.

In 2014, when the BJP came to power, some in Bangladesh hoped that BJP rule would differ from its predecessor, the Indian National Congress, regarding its relationship with Bangladesh. It did not happen.

On the other hand, the incumbent Awami League (AL) has breathed a sigh of relief that despite its reduced number of seats in Parliament, the BJP is still in power.

Ahead of the 2024 Bangladesh elections, the AL openly asked for New Delhi’s tacit interjection in the wake of the United States’ insistence on a free, fair, and inclusive election. Immediately after the election, current Foreign Minister Hasain Mahmud acknowledged that India was on the AL’s side during the 2014 and 2018 elections. “You all know India’s position in the elections this year too,” he said.

The relationship over the past decade has been unequal both on political and economic fronts, with Bangladesh on the receiving end.

Equally important to note is that despite the economic and strategic interests pursued by the Indian government vis-à-vis Bangladesh, BJP leaders never shied away from expressing their disdain for Bangladeshis and described them as “termites.”

As the election results do not indicate any changes in government, there is no reason to expect a change in the Modi government’s approach or policies.

Two other elements favor policy continuity. India’s Bangladesh policy has all the markers of broad support of the Indian establishment. In the past decade, especially in 2023 when there was a divergence between the U.S. and India, there was not a peep about the human rights situation in Bangladesh from the Indian establishment.

Second, the policy has been guided by India’s security threat perception. India’s security apparatus ostensibly views Bangladesh through a security lens. Their understanding is that only the Awami League, especially Sheikh Hasina, can ensure that India won’t have to be worried about its security on the eastern front, including the restive northeastern states.

Despite strong arguments for continuity, one unknown element is the role of the opposition. Will it make the government’s regional policy an issue? One may recall that in 2018, Congress raised concerns about the Modi government’s foreign policy with particular reference to its relationship with neighboring countries. Congress’ document described the Modi government’s regional policy as “neighborhood lost,” stating:

Looking back at the last three years, India’s foreign policy has achieved little in terms of strategic gains. The ‘Neighborhood First’ policy has degenerated into a ‘Neighborhood Lost’ policy wherein India has become the isolated and generally distrusted next-door neighbor. There are major grievances against New Delhi that are commonly shared among many South Asian nations today. Numerous serious allegations have been raised regarding India’s attempt to bully its smaller neighbors and interfere in their local politics.

The document specifically mentioned Bangladesh-India relations. “Our relationship with Bangladesh, a country that India shares a historically rich and prosperous relationship with, is also seeing signs of stress,” it said. Goodwill with Bangladesh was “eroding slowly.”

While one cannot disagree with this assessment of 2018 and subsequent further erosion, it is also true that such erosion began under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2013 when then-Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh visited Dhaka ahead of a contentious election and convinced the Jatiya Party – led by former dictator General H. M. Ershad – to join the polls. The election, boycotted by all opposition parties, was a big step toward democratic erosion and India’s role was viewed by many Bangladeshis as intrusive, to say the least.

In Congress’ political discourse, Bangladesh reappeared in the past year when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi raised concerns regarding the Modi-Adani nexus and implied some corrupt practices. He pointedly raised the question “whether the purpose of the Modi government’s foreign policy is to make industrialist Gautam Adani richer.” He mentioned Modi’s 2015 Bangladesh visit when the Adani Group signed a power-producing deal with Bangladesh, which allowed Adani to charge a price that is three times higher than the price of electricity that Bangladesh is importing from other Indian power plants.

It is worth noting that since 2023 and during the election campaign, Gandhi has repeatedly referenced “Adani and Ambani” as symbols of corruption of the Modi government.

Bangladesh’s state of democracy is not unknown to the Indian opposition parties. During the election campaign, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party said, “We don’t want democracy in India to end like in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Russia.”

For those who observe Bangladesh politics, it was not a revelation, but this was a rare acknowledgment of the lack of democracy in Bangladesh by a national political leader of India.

In a democratic system of governance, foreign policy is largely within the purview of the executive and seldom can the opposition change the course. However, opposition parties can push for accountability and expose the motives behind the policies. Whether the Congress party and the alliance are willing to use their power to scrutinize Modi’s regional foreign policy in general, and India-Bangladesh relations in particular, is something to be seen in the future. Until then India will keep the status quo under Modi 3.0.

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