Amid the high-stakes elections in five states of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make his first international trip in over a year.
The Prime Minister is on a two-day visit to Bangladesh from March 26 to take part in the commemoration of 'Mujib Borsho' or the centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of Bangladesh's Independence.
Erstwhile East Pakistan, led by Rahman, waged an ethno-nationalist war against Islamabad's control, which was finally won in 1971. India's third Prime Minister Indira Gandhi extended unequivocal support sending even the Indian Armed Forces and securing the country's rebirth. Since then both countries have shared a cordial relationship, albeit with a few minor glitches.
While in Bangladesh, Modi is scheduled to visit Rahman's memorial in Tungipara. And on March 27, he will pay his respects to Matua leader Harichand Thakur at his shrine in Orakandi and visit the Sugandha Shaktipith in Barishal district. Incidentally, on the same day, Bengal goes to the polls in the first phase of an eight-phase election.
This is perhaps for the first time in the history of an Indian election that a leader will use foreign soil in an attempt to secure his party's vote bank.
The founder of Matua Mahasangha -- a Hindu sect -- Harichand Thakur was born in Orakandi in 1812 and holds a god-like position among his people. After the second partition of Bengal in 1947, these namasudras marched towards the West and made Bengal their home.
The 1.8 crore-strong Matua community in West Bengal has a direct impact on almost 70 Assembly seats in the state. Once with the Trinamool, they shifted their allegiance to the BJP in 2019 banking on the promise of being granted citizenship. This need of these migrant Dalits had helped the BJP win 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2019.
However, a year later, the Matuas are angry that the promise has remained unfulfilled. The New Indian Express had reported earlier this year that there is palpable anger among the Matua voters due to the delay in the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, a law that was passed in 2019.
In a bid to retain the vote bank, the BJP in its manifesto claimed that if voted to power the CAA will be implemented during its first cabinet meet itself.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an interview with Gulf News, had dismissed the law as "unnecessary" but maintained that CAA is India's internal matter. "We don't understand why the Indian government did it. It was not necessary (sic)," she had said.
According to a senior journalist from Bangladesh Sahidul Hasan Khokon, BJP MP from Bongaon Shantanu Thakur, the descendant of Harichand, still maintains a healthy connect with the Matuas in Orikhandi and he is the one who pushed for this visit.
Located 180 kilometres from Dhaka, Orikhandi is a small village, devoid of proper road connectivity and security. "After the Indian government requested Bangladesh for the site visits, the Hasina government started building a helipad near Orikhandi. The place is no way in a condition for any head of state to visit. Even the Bangladeshis are baffled over Modi's decision to visit the shrine," Khokon said.
In a recent development, irked by the lack of Matua names in the BJP's candidate list, Shantanu's father Manjul Krishna Thakur announced that the Matua Mahasangha will not support the saffron party in this election.
"When we spoke to the Matuas in Bangladesh, they said they are excited by the prospect of his (PM Modi's) visit but are aware that it is a trick to earn the trust of their community. In my opinion, this is nothing but an election gimmick," Khokon said.
While the capital Dhaka has seen protests against Modi's arrival for the past few weeks, Sheikh Hasina has gone the extra mile to facilitate his visit.
"Given India's role in the liberation war, the Hasina government has always tried to be there for India and Narendra Modi is no other person. He is the Prime Minister of India. The Hasina government is making sure that everything goes fine," Khokon added.
On March 26, despite all the opposition, there will be officials welcoming the Indian Prime Minister wearing 'Mujib jackets'.
Bengal and Bangladesh, once cut from the same cloth, now share bitter-sweet diplomatic ties post the Teesta water-sharing issue. Earlier this month, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said, "I respect Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, but we can afford to provide water only when we have enough for ourselves." Mamata is yet to express her views on Modi's visit.