No progress towards a Teesta deal, no sign of removing trade barriers, no respite from killing along the border, and thus, no optimism among average Bangladeshis about a possible overture from India. Rather, a confusing question hovers over the heads of the elites: Will Prime Minister Narendra Modi make any shift in New Delhi’s policy towards Dhaka?
No sane person could claim that the current state of bilateral ties – not yet free from the hangover of the last days of the Congress-Awami League nexus – is the relation between two democratic nations. It’s instead an uneasy equation in which the Modi administration might not extend the same gesture as sought by Premier Sheikh Hasina’s government for its survival in power.
This relational asymmetry has prompted a number of retired diplomats and foreign policy analysts in Dhaka to ask whether Delhi wants to maintain “friendly” relations with an isolated party clinging to power by coercion, or with a national government that enjoys popular mandate.
A bunch of power-mongers, undergoing the test of popular legitimacy after the thoroughly manipulated ballot on January 5, seemed to have remained subservient to the (Congress) rulers in Delhi, no matter how they were treated. Who can stop it if you one-sidedly love or hate someone?
Unsurprisingly, the ruling party camp got shaky seeing the victory of Modi’s BJP in the April polls, as if he would make a U-turn from day-one in office, although an abrupt shift in foreign policy pursued by any sensible statesman is generally unlikely. The AL regime’s nervousness obviously proved its lack of confidence in Bangladeshi people.
Opposition BNP found relief in the incommunicado with Delhi, thanks to the exit of Congress, and the party leaders tried to convey to Modi’s advisers that they would appreciate non-interference from the neighbour in future political demonstrations demanding participatory national elections in Bangladesh.
In fact, the whispering started once the people witnessed India’s external affairs secretary Sujatha Singh’s undiplomatic advocacy for persuading General Ershad’s Jatiya Party to join the January polls to ensure an AL comeback to power, irrespective of public apathy towards an election without voting. What would have been the reaction from BJP leaders if Congress had managed to hold an election in India following the Hasina model?
Neither of the United States, the European Union, Japan, China, or Saudi Arabia supported the farcical polls, but India alone was being blamed for encouraging AL into embracing a dangerous path of disregarding democratic values and rights of the people.
In the recent high commissioners’ summit in Dhaka, former diplomats of the two countries expressed determination to work for protecting “democratic values and rights” of the people. Conscious of public grievances, former Indian high commissioner Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty tried to make up for the damage, saying that they also wanted a participatory election in Bangladesh.
However, foreign policy stands second to domestic compulsions created by the people’s demands and sentiments unless a charismatic and visionary leader takes courageous steps influencing the people to change the course of history. Premier Modi is yet to be tested in that regard.
The establishment in Delhi is still focused on two modes of foreign policy with its bordering countries – conflicting relations plus nuclear deterrence with Pakistan, and a more hegemonic stance with smaller neighbours. A retired diplomat said none of the two models are applicable to Bangladesh, which historically preferred a friendship with dignity.
The elephant-like size of India in the South Asian scene doesn’t make others envious unless Delhi shows a wholesale neglect to their popular will or pursues a one-eyed policy towards, for example, an unpopular regime in Dhaka. The blunder made by India by playing a biased and interfering role in Bangladesh’s electoral process had presented to the masses a feeling of insult, which is yet to be remedied.
If the Modi government is willing to build a long-lasting bond of friendship with the Bangladeshi people, the rulers who hold the keys of the administrative headquarters in Dhaka are not the ones who could mould public opinion in favour of coming closer to each other without suspicion or a hostile mindset.
The high commissioners’ summit, organised by the department of International Relations at Dhaka University, was an initiative as part of what is called Track II diplomacy – a direct people-to-people contact outside official channels. As once-serving diplomats were active participants there, the talks of democracy offered a certain amount of discomfort to the AL camp, if not a blanket embarrassment relevant to decent leadership.
Stakeholders are yet to get an answer to the question in their minds: Is Delhi, under Modi’s leadership, ready to correct the wrong and anti-people position taken by the Congress Party?
When the people of any country are unwilling to accept anything less than democracy, their aspirations matter in building friendship beyond the boundary. Premier Modi and his foreign policy team understand better how India can earn the confidence of Bangladeshis in the coming days.