Could Delhi-Dhaka ties cool with India getting coalition govt?

Could Delhi-Dhaka ties cool with India getting coalition govt?
Partners of Narendra Modi’s BJP likely won’t alter Bangladesh policy, but MPs from stronger opposition may question allegedly dodgy foreign deals.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has benefitted from New Delhi’s unwavering support for her government during the past 15 years, and has struck a camaraderie with Indian counterpart Narendra Modi since he came to power in 2014. This was once again on display when she attended Modi’s induction ceremony on Sunday for a third term, along with other foreign leaders.

But some observers in Dhaka may be wondering if the results of the Indian general election will spur a change in India’s regional policy, especially in its relationship with next-door neighbor Bangladesh. 

Because his Bharatiya Janata Party lost the parliamentary majority it had won consecutively in the two previous elections, it has had to form a coalition government with other parties. Although Modi’s party won more seats than its partners did, the BJP will have to keep its partners happy so they don’t pull their support.

That means Modi and the BJP cannot ride roughshod over their coalition partners when making policies, whether those are domestic, regional or international. However, these coalition partners are unlikely to demand any changes in foreign policy, because they are mostly regional parties concerned with their states and domestic issues.

Besides, it is in New Delhi’s interest to keep Dhaka on its side in the face of competition from Beijing for influence over Bangladesh. India’s ruling blocs, whether it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) or the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), have always prioritized national interest in its policies towards Bangladesh.

Indian policymakers consider it important to have a friendly government in Bangladesh amid tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad and rifts with other South Asian nations that crop up every now and then because, analysts say, India’s policy towards its neighbors is viewed as intrusive. 

Back in 1971, India, the world’s most populous democracy, fought alongside Bangladesh in its war of independence from Pakistan.

For India, having a friendly government in Dhaka has meant unconditional support for PM Hasina, who has ruled her country for 15 consecutive years. Indian foreign ministry officials and former envoys have leapt to their neighbor’s defense when Western countries, human rights groups or civil society activists speak about alleged fixed elections.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives at the Indian presidential palace for the swearing in ceremony of Narendra Modi as Indian prime minister, in New Delhi, June 9, 2024. [Manish Swarup/AP]

When Bangladesh opposition parties announced they would boycott the 2014 general election, then-Indian Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh traveled to Dhaka and was said to have pressured the Jatiya Party, led by Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, to participate. During this alleged incident, the UPA was in power in India.

Later, when the BJP took office in New Delhi in 2014, the two neighbors became even friendlier. Modi has appreciated Hasina’s efforts to ensure that separatists in India’s northeastern states don’t take refuge in Bangladesh, thus bringing peace to the region.

After the January 2024 general election in Bangladesh, Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud acknowledged India’s steadfast support during polls.

“India stood by our side in 2014 when there were many conspiracies going on surrounding the election. In 2018, there were efforts to make the election controversial as well as to raise many questions on it; India was beside us then too,” Prothom Alo quoted him as telling reporters on Jan. 15.  

“This time, you all know what was or is the stance of India over holding an election to maintain democratic continuity.” 

All this while the United States kept urging the Hasina government to ensure free and fair elections, and to stop intimidating the media and silencing the opposition.

In May 2023, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would deny visas to Bangladeshis suspected of undermining democratic elections in the South Asian nation.

Perhaps as a quid pro quo, members of Hasina’s Awami League party stay silent on longstanding issues between the two South Asian neighbors, such as water sharing from the Teesta River and Bangladeshi citizens being killed on the border with India.

A thorn in relations

But what rattles India is Dhaka’s equally close ties with Beijing.

Bangladesh’s ruling party is still politically dependent on India, although Dhaka is increasingly establishing a deeper economic relationship with Beijing. China has invested in several large infrastructure projects in Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh’s ruling party and Hasina have repeatedly assured India that its relationship with China is not intended to counter India, nor is Dhaka leaning towards Beijing. Perhaps the PM’s enthusiastic attendance at Modi’s oath-taking ceremony and her planned visit to New Delhi on June 21-22, before she is scheduled to visit Beijing on July 9-12, are intended to reaffirm that position.

Meanwhile, during the decade of Modi’s administration, Indian businesses have ostensibly received preferential treatment in investing in Bangladesh. The Adani group’s investment in Bangladesh’s energy sector is one example.

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, who within the past week was named the opposition leader in Parliament, has alleged time and again that Modi has helped tycoon Gautam Adani get an advantage in investments in other countries, including Bangladesh.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (right) and his mother and senior party leader, Sonia Gandhi, leave a polling booth after casting their votes in the sixth round of polling in India's national election, in New Delhi, May 25, 2024. [Manish Swarup/AP]

It is from this quarter that a challenge to the Modi government’s regional policy, including towards Bangladesh, may arise.

After making huge and unexpected gains in the 2024 election, Congress and its allies now command 232 seats in Parliament to the BJP-led coalition’s 293 – these MPs can no longer be out-shouted in the House and will insist on making Modi more accountable after his 10 years on untrammeled power.

They may well raise the Adani issues, and not just in the case of Bangladesh.

And as they have insisted from time to time that Modi’s policies have led to a decline in India’s influence in the region – to China’s benefit – we may well see them raise questions about Indian foreign policy, specifically about South Asia policy. 

Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of Illinois State University, the Atlantic Council, or BenarNews.

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