As Bangladesh approaches an election and the United States turns heat on the Bangladesh government to hold a free and fair election, discussions on India’s role in Bangladesh have once again come to the fore. Since the United States announced its new visa policy on May 24, 2023 to support a free and fair election and democracy in Bangladesh, the public discourse in Bangladesh and in the Indian media have centered on two questions: whether India will continue its unqualified support to the Hasina regime and whether there will be a divergence between the United States and India’s position on Bangladesh’s democratic future. In case of such divergence, whoever prevails is likely to determine the course of Bangladeshi politics for the foreseeable future.
Jittery reactions of the Indian media
Since the new visa policy was announced, a flurry of opinion commentary and editorials published in the Indian press reveal a widespread discomfort with the United States visa decision, and an acknowledgement that it has put India in a “tricky position.” These commentaries describe the US move as “muscle-flexing,” and allege that it is “a hypocritical interference in the election and internal affairs of a sovereign nation.” A large part of the Indian press appears to agree with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister that the United States action is intended to depose the Hasina regime, an allegation Prime Minister Hasina has made twice since April 10. Some Indian commentators even suggest that it is “not the right time” to support democracy in Bangladesh. The common thread in the Indian commentary is that Delhi must ensure that Hasina stays in power. One analyst writes, “India must do everything possible, within four corners of international law and with absolute respect for Bangladesh’s sovereignty, to help Sheikh Hasina-led Bangladesh Awami League win the parliamentary elections scheduled in that country in January 2024.” The argument that has been advanced for unqualified support to Hasina is the Indian national interest; in the words of one commentator, “India has no option without supporting Hasina regime,” while another has explained further, “for India, an Awami League government is key to push forward its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.”
The ignored history
To understand the current moment in India-Bangladesh relations, we must analyze the progression of the relationship between Bangladesh and India over the past fourteen years. The relationship, since the Awami League came into power in 2009, has been officially described as “the golden era,” but Bangladeshi analysts have expressed concerns that the relationship has perhaps become lopsided in favoring India. Under the Hasina regime, India has received Bangladesh’s support in rooting out insurgency in India’s Northeastern region, securing transit through Bangladesh, gaining permanent access to two main ports in the Bay of Bengal, signing an energy deal which ensures that Bangladesh buys electricity with the highest cost, inking an agreement which allows India to install a surveillance system in the Bay of Bengal, agreeing to a water-sharing deal which provides India control over the river Kushiyara and engaging in close defense cooperation to name but a few significant bilateral achievements. On the contrary, Bangladesh’s repeated request to sign a deal about Teesta River water sharing has been ignored; the India-Bangladesh border has become the most violent border as Indian Border Security Force (BSF) continue to kill Bangladeshis in large numbers; trade gaps between the two countries have increased over the years in favor of India; and Bangladesh has not received support from India dealing with the Rohingya refugee crisis. In 2018, responding to a question on whether she wants reciprocation from India, Hasina stated that India will remember forever what Bangladesh gave it. This unequal relationship has persisted because of India’s unqualified support to the Hasina government. In the wake of the 2014 election, the Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh visited Dhaka and allegedly pressured the Jatiya Party, led by General H.M. Ershad, to join the election which was boycotted by all opposition parties. In 2018, although it was evident to the Indian establishment that the Awami League has already “assiduously subverted democratic norms and institutions” and that in a fair election “the Awami League will be reduced to an embarrassing minority in the next Parliament,” India’s support to the Awami League was unflinching. Such actions contribute to a perception in Bangladesh that India’s support is vital for the survival of the Hasina government. Such suspicion was further cemented when Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said in 2022 that he had asked India to ensure the Hasina government’s survival at any cost.
The follies of Indian media coverage
Three follies are easily discerned in the arguments of Indian commentators:
- While they are criticizing the United States for what they are describing as intrusion into Bangladesh’s domestic politics, they conveniently ignore how India has maintained its influence over the past decade and ironically call upon the Indian government to side with the incumbent Hasina regime disregarding their own stated concerns about sovereignty. While the United States has repeatedly reaffirmed that it is not favoring any party over the other but simply underscoring the need for a fair electoral process, the Indian media are asking it to interject on behalf of a specific political party.
- They are implicitly suggesting that a fair election will deliver a victory to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). This concern is difficult to square with their claims that Bangladesh has achieved remarkable economic and social successes in the past fourteen years and that Hasina has the support of most of the population.
- The argument that a victory of BNP will reignite militancy disregards the global context of the rise of transnational and regional terrorist groups around the world and the changed circumstances. It is not a stretch to suggest that such an argument is nothing short of using Islamist bogeymen to justify undemocratic behavior.
How India assumed the commanding position
The enormous influence of India over Bangladesh’s domestic politics is a result of a geopolitical game in the region since 2001, and reflects the conspicuous absence of the United States. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States remained focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Iraq invasion diverted its attention from South Asia. A growing relationship between the United States and India gave the latter the opportunity to extend its sphere of influence. This was furthered by China’s assertive policy, which began after Xi Jinping became the leader, and South Asia became one of the battlegrounds. The United States had seen India as the antidote to China. As for the Bangladesh policy, despite Washington’s reliance on India, it disagreed with New Delhi on the course of Bangladesh’s democratic trajectory. In 2013-14, New Delhi and Washington went through several rounds of conversations about the need for an inclusive election in Dhaka. Then United States ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, made several visits to New Delhi, but India took a firmer stand and rebuffed United States efforts. The United States backstepped, allowed India to do its bidding, and the Hasina government continued; however, the United States had not lost sight of the continued regression of human rights and democracy in Bangladesh as reflected in the annual human rights reports of the State Department.
The United States returns to Bangladesh
With the Presidency of Joe Biden, democracy and human rights once again are a professedly cornerstone of United States foreign policy. This has spurred a change in Bangladesh policy. The imposition of sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite police force, the Rapid Actions Battalion (RAB), and its seven officials in December 2021, and serious warnings through 2022 and early 2023, clearly revealed that Bangladesh is being closely watched by the United States administration. The growing influence of China on Bangladesh since 2016 and United States focus on the Indo-Pacific region enhance the geo-political significance of Bangladesh. As such, the United States seemed to adopt a carrot-and-stick policy towards Bangladesh. The United States donated the largest number of COVID-19 vaccines to Bangladesh, but such largesse was also accompanied by concerns regarding the erosion of democracy. These efforts, which didn’t go through New Delhi, showed that the “US is no longer watching Bangladesh through the Indian lens.”
Does the Indian government’s silence bear any message?
Despite the intense discussions in the media, there hasn’t been any official word from New Delhi regarding the new United States policy or the growing tension between the United States and Bangladesh. New Delhi has remained studiously silent. Unlike in 2014, India is leaving the US-Bangladesh issue out of its public posture. After the imposition of sanctions on RAB, India’s reaction was muted, although Bangladesh sought India’s help to reverse the decision. Many wondered whether New Delhi was consulted on the issue, and there is no indication that New Delhi ever raised the issue with Washington.
Three interpretations of India’s current lack of engagement are worth considering:
- Despite United States actions demanding a reversal of democratic erosion, New Delhi is comfortable with the status quo. In the past year and a half, as US officials were sending strong messages to Bangladesh regarding the human rights situation and democracy, public messages from India were a show of support to Hasina. Visits of Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Khatra in February this year and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in April and May, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to Hasina as an observer to the Group of Twenty to be held in New Delhi in September are cases in point. These give the impression that “New Delhi … wants Hasina to win by any means.” It bears watching if India will use its leverage with the United States to convince the Biden administration to soften its Bangladesh policy in the coming months.
- India is not opposed to the United States pressure on Bangladesh, which it recognizes will make Hasina vulnerable and more dependent on India to act an interlocutor between Bangladesh and the United States and as a countervailing force to China. The more vulnerable the regime in Dhaka is, the more leverage New Delhi will hold.
- Considering the high-stake geopolitical contestation between United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region and the increasing importance of Bangladesh in this tug-of-war, India is grudgingly accepting that it is becoming a secondary external actor in Bangladeshi politics as the United States no longer considers India a strong player.
What should the United States and India do?
India-US relations are complex. Both nations emphasize the strategic interdependence reflected in their close cooperation through several multilateral frameworks such as QUAD and Indo-Pacific strategy and bilateral engagement in defense and trade. However, India’s own democratic erosion has drawn attention in the United States in recent years. Additionally, some are raising questions about the reliability of India’s foreign policy and whether India is a safe bet for the United States against China.
Whether the Bangladesh issue will be included on the Biden-Modi summit agenda next week in Washington is an open question. Considering other pressing issues around the world, and several other issues of divergence between the United States and India, Bangladesh may seem less significant but larger geopolitical considerations pertaining to the Indo-Pacific region undoubtedly dictate that Bangladesh receive attention. It’s incumbent on the United States to let India know that they will follow through in its promise to defend Bangladesh’s democracy, and that its broader South Asia policy will not be shaped by its relationship with New Delhi. How India navigates the tension between its global aspirations and regional preferences will be revealing indeed.
Ali Riaz is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.
The South Asia Center serves as the Atlantic Council’s focal point for work on the region as well as relations between these countries, neighboring regions, Europe, and the United States.
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