“We’re not really doing foreign policy here,” a senior Indian diplomat told me a few months ago about India’s play in, and with, Bangladesh. The implication: It’s more India’s domestic policy than pure foreign policy, an extension of — as I first wrote in a column back in 2015 — the logic of securing Bangladesh to secure India.
This is not always done with finesse, but with what, sometimes, seems like a policy battering ram.
In that may lie the root cause of the relatively poor optics that India has in Bangladesh despite great strides in bilateral trade, connectivity, lines of credit, and flow of people — a legal, visa-led flow of people. The perceived heavy-handedness has been further buttressed by statements made by both Indian and Bangladeshi public figures that suggest India’s current establishment is solidly behind maintaining Bangladesh’s political status quo at any cost.
A firm handshake
Bilateral trade has zoomed from a little over $6 billion in 2014-15 to over $14bn now, with Bangladesh accounting for about $2bn of it. Most Bangladeshi products have easy access to Indian markets although this is for now diluted by the difficulty in penetrating the vast but highly competitive Indian market. Indian goods are transhipped through Bangladesh to connect its eastern region with its far-eastern region using Bangladeshi transportation, literally a quid pro quo. Bangladesh buys more than 2,000MW of electricity from India from both state-run and private producers.
In 2019, India issued 1.6 million visas to Bangladeshi citizens, according to Indian visa processing officials in Bangladesh. In 2021, even with the pandemic in flow, 2.3 million visas were issued, overwhelmingly for medical purposes. Figures for 2022: More than 1.5 million.
Bangladesh has for years shut down the anti-India rebel pipeline, beginning with the spectacular handing over of Manipuri and Assamese rebel leaders in 2010.
Married to these gains is a cynical Indian policy perspective that has become the flavour of the regime, as it were. It goes something like this.
Imagine what the inundation of Bangladesh’s coastal areas could do. Its population will force its way elsewhere, to the country’s north, west, and east. In a pressure cooker situation, such migration will cross the border. India would be powerless to stem this migration; no barrier at the border can prevent this. Livelihood needs, not religion — a parallel Indian establishment paranoia — would drive that push. Besides conflicts that such a move could trigger and escalate in the tinder-box that is north-eastern India and present-day West Bengal, a worst-case scenario could even see an eastern “line of control” as with India’s western border by Pakistan.
To ensure such a future doesn’t come to pass, one must secure Bangladesh — politically, socially, and economically. This core philosophy, with the inevitable leavening of China in the regional mix, is a driving force.
It’s no secret that think-tankers and policy wonks from India fly into Dhaka, generally eschew interaction with a wide spectrum of local analysts and think-tankers, and prefer to instead closet themselves with top echelons of Bangladesh’s government and policy circles before flying back to Delhi. There is handsome DEL-DAC-DEL mileage accrual by those from, say, the Observer Research Foundation and the India Foundation, with the latter — a transparent extension of the so-called Sangh Parivar, India’s ultra-right Hindu nationalist superstructure — pushing harder.
There is little pretence about working the so-called Track Two anymore. The advertised channel is Track 1.5: The quasi-government twilight zone that carries and disseminates government agenda with government funding.
Organizations are frequently fed and watered by research grants and sponsorship for mega and mid-sized seminars and conferences through foreign ministry largesse. Agenda is templated. For instance, when the South Asian supply chain became the mantra from spring 2023 onward — encouraged by the US, Japan, and which also became a key plank during India’s G20 presidency — several Indian think-tanks splashed out articles and conferences on the benefits of an India-led supply chain in South Asia. Funding flowed.
It was as if no logic for it existed earlier — even though logic for it has existed for close to three decades. But, to be fair, practice existed piecemeal. Equally, potential has come of age with, among other things, the impressive growth of Bangladesh’s economy and the urgency of boosting its manufacturing base and diversifying its exports away from readymade garments.
A star war
But the supply chain push came not only for its economic merit from a bilateral and regional perspective to benefit from growing South Asian economies or buoy faltering ones, but also as a thwart-China action. India’s geo-political and geo-economic Luke Skywalker to China’s Darth Vader, so to speak.
India Foundation has made two major runs to Bangladesh this year. One was in Dhaka, over May 12-13 for an Indian Ocean conference from a Quad perspective in general and an Indian perspective in particular. It packed three of Dhaka’s five-star hotels with think-tankers wearing establishment stripes, and political and business punters with strong ties to the ruling party and, as crucially, the Sangh Parivar which — from leader to lumpen — have most recently thrown in their lot with Israel in its battle with Palestinians.
There was a second, the India-Bangladesh Friendship Dialogue over October 5-6 in Sylhet, which had as a cultural fig leaf — albeit a significant fig leaf — of a connect with Sylhet and the Bengali-majority city of Silchar in the adjacent Indian state of Assam. Both jamborees were co-sponsored by India and Bangladesh’s foreign ministries.
This is, of course, not to say that China doesn’t play big in Bangladesh. Those in Bangladesh’s public life, and academia and public policy especially in the field of international and security affairs, fatten their own frequent-flier portfolios with sponsored journeys to Beijing, Shanghai, and China’s south-western policy hub of Kunming.
But it’s all done with relatively silky finesse and to ensure smoother optics. For instance, one rarely hears criticism of the Chinese debt burden in Bangladesh. Or of China’s bilateral trade with Bangladesh that is nearly double of Bangladesh’s bilateral trade with India, and with a trade deficit that far exceeds the one with India by several billion dollars. Or, public discourse for the need to extract more from China for all trade and investment benefits it receives.
Part of the reason is, of course, distance. China doesn’t share a border with Bangladesh even though it looms over the region. India shares a complex, umbilical history and a border with Bangladesh that exceeds 4,000km — the longest land border in South Asia.
This inescapable relationship and attendant dynamics bring with it obligations, besides that of tempering body language and policy to be seen to be Bangladesh-friendly. Besides, an Indian government — any Indian government — will find it more beneficial to dial down we’re-helping-you and work on we’re-with-you.
Strengthening the ties that bind
There are several areas that cry out for improvement. Speeding up negotiations for updated water treaties fair to a lower riparian country like Bangladesh is one such.
To this I would place a liberalization of the visa regime for visits to India, a suggestion made in a recent editorial in this newspaper. If India has earned enough socio-economic credibility for visa-on-arrival or e-visa benefits from countries in Asia and elsewhere, Bangladesh, with its visible, regular infusion of medical-tourism and general-tourism dollars into India, backed by the insurance of a steadily growing economy and steadily improving development indicators that often trump India’s, most certainly has.
I would also add instances of firing on the border, and lamentably regular incidents of shooting to kill. Border management is a fraught exercise, with elements of both unimpeachable need and undeniable corruption on both sides of the border.
But India’s Border Security Force, or BSF, which recently celebrated its part in Bangladesh’s birth with the publication of a book, would do well to keep in mind that one can as easily interdict and arrest those who attempt to cross illegally.
Perhaps India’s foreign ministry and its travelling minstrels could advise India’s interior ministry, which oversees the BSF, that it doesn’t do to kill one’s professed friends. One should, at the very least, ask questions first.
Source : Dhaka Tribune