India and Bangladesh have together breached ceilings that were considered impregnable in South Asia. This last decade of bilateral partnership has not only restored to some extent the traditional, historical cross-border linkages the Indian sub-continent previously enjoyed, it has also quietened the constant refrain that this region is among the least connected and overall underperforming. It is no coincidence that India and Bangladesh are now poised to be the precursors of regional connectedness and the relationship also reflects early glimpses towards developing regional value chains.
As neighbours with over 4000 kms of land borders as well as a maritime boundary (both of which were delineated peacefully), there exist many commonalities as well as the undeniable potential for conflict. India and Bangladesh also share 54 common rivers. The 1996 Ganges Water Treaty resolved one irritant but the unfulfilled promise of framing a river basin water-sharing formula as well as signing the Teesta River Agreement, continues to cast its shadow over a bilateral relationship that has grown multifold over the years. For the common Bangladeshi the lack of water-sharing agreements with New Delhi colours their view of India.
Breakthrough in bilateral ties
Given the history and topography of the common terrain, several cross-border issues including illegal incursions by men and animals, drugs and weapons, continue to cause bilateral tensions. For a period Bangladeshi soil was used by anti-India elements which caused serious security concerns for New Delhi. While this was often denied by the then Bangladeshi leadership, the coming of Sheikh Hasina in 2009 purposefully shifted the bilateral narrative to a more cooperative framework. This break from the past was initiated even before the joint communique was signed in 2010. The Awami League coalition government led by Sheikh Hasina unilaterally addressed many of the outstanding security issues including closing the Indian insurgents’ camps in Bangladesh and handing over the insurgents to India. The bilateral trajectory that subsequently evolved remains unparalleled in the history of Indo-Bangladesh ties. India reciprocated with the largest lines of credit (US7.8 billion) to Bangladesh and they together unveiled an ambitious developmental partnership.
Bangladesh is increasingly playing a critical role in many of India’s foreign policy outreaches and the growing bilateral tie has showcased India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Bangladesh’s support to India’s Northeast region has made it a vital pivot for the ‘Act East Policy,’ while adding momentum to India’s renewed focus for the BIMSTEC forum and the Indian Ocean Rim Association too.
Through building cross border connectivity spread over varied transport systems, energy pipelines, as well as growing defence cooperation and a bilateral trade of nearly US 20 billion, the scope of the Indo-Bangladeshi bilateral relationship has been unprecedented and continues to grow despite global economic concerns. This present phase is popularly known as the Sonali Adhaya (the golden period) and in fact has surpassed the extraordinary beginning the two shared during the Liberation War period.
Indeed, India and Bangladeshi bilateral relations predate the birth of this 51 year-old South Asian nation. Intent on moving away from the repression and violence that it suffered under Pakistani leadership, East Pakistan found support from India and the joint forces ensured a decisive victory and the formal birth of Bangladesh in December 1971. This exceptional friendship, however, faltered very soon with the assassination of Sheikh Mujibir Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh and a close friend of India. The event not only led to drastic changes inside Bangladesh but also adversely impacted bilateral ties. Historically, the Awami League — one of the main political parties and a chief architect of the birth of Bangladesh — and India have enjoyed a strong friendship. Much of that changed during the longish period of consecutive military leaders who held sway till 1990.
Too close a proximity to the Awami League
The return to parliamentary democracy in 1991 saw Bangladeshi polity dominated by three personalities and four political parties namely, Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League and daughter of Mujibur Rahman; Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) and wife of Gen Ziaur Rahman who established the party during his presidential term; and General Ershad, the architect of the Jatiya Party also born out of the barracks, including the Jamaat-i-Islami, a religious political party that is now banned. However, over the years, the Awami League has consolidated itself while the BNP is now in decline. India has always maintained a close proximity with the Awami League as the BNP has in the past consistently opposed India and Khaleda Zia’s last term as prime minister during 2001-2006 will easily go down as the worst phase for bilateral ties. Thus, irrespective of which party was in power in New Delhi, the Awami League government has always maintained friendly terms with India; this has not been the case for any non-Awami government in Dhaka.
Much of the bilateral growth discussed was possible as it was closely shepherded by the two sets of leaders on both sides. However, with an Awami League coalition government, that has continued to hold sway for the past 15 years through two parliamentary elections of 2014 and 2019 (widely believed to be of very questionable validity), a distinct shift to an inegalitarian society with high levels of corruption, intrusion into media and personal liberty, growing economic woes and the emergence of a hybrid democracy is perceptible. The apparent Indian proximity and New Delhi’s perceived support to Sheikh Hasina, who is exhibiting increasingly autocratic traits, has not gone unnoticed by a strong constituency that remains outside of the present political dispensation. Presently, the BNP is too weak to realistically be a challenge in the upcoming elections but for the sake of a free and fair election, it needs to be co-opted through some seat-sharing arrangement. This time around it would be very difficult to legitimize another one-sided election. The likelihood of the Awami League moving away from its present avatar in the post Sheikh Hasina era will throw up further challenges for India.
Presently, government-to-government relations between the two neighbours are excellent but the people-to-people connect, the foundational basis of the bilateral ties, is tenuous. Arguably, the new generations on both sides are not bound by the emotions of the past and with religious polarity taking place in both countries, the new generational friendship cannot be taken for granted anymore. Is Indo-Bangladeshi bilateral developmental cooperation standing at a cusp of irreversible partnership? That is the moot question. In the face of ongoing overreach by China and subtle attempts by Pakistan to befriend Bangladesh, India cannot afford to be perceived as a friend by only a certain section of Bangladeshis. In an ever-evolving regional landscape, India needs more than just one Sheikh Hasina to uphold and sustain its interests in Bangladesh. Source: natstrat
Professor, O.P. Jindal Global University, India and Non-resident Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, Singapore