Connectivity and energy security have occupied centre-stage in India-Bangladesh bilateral ties over the last two decades. On November 1, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated via video conferencing the Agartala-Akhaura rail link, the Khulna-Mongla port broad gauge rail link and the start of the second unit of the Maitree Super thermal power plant. The plant is a 50:50 joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation and the Bangladesh Power Development Board. Most bilateral connectivity projects have been implemented with the help of India’s concessional lines of credit and grants.
The Agartala-Akhaura link and Maitri bridge over river Feni will improve connectivity between India’s northeastern states. These projects mark another phase in implementing the strategic decision to integrate bilateral transport and power connectivity. The Padma bridge is a phenomenal achievement in domestic connectivity and will reduce time and cost for exports and imports. Another project that was inaugurated virtually by the two prime ministers earlier this year was the Maitri pipeline, a transborder pipeline funded by India to transport around 1 million metric tonnes of high-speed diesel every year from the Numaligarh refinery in Assam to northern Bangladesh.
Diversified connectivity links have facilitated trade and passenger traffic. Bilateral trade increased substantially to $18 billion in 2021-22, with Bangladesh becoming the fourth-biggest export destination for India. Connectivity has boosted trade-related logistics and reduced costs. Robust economic growth in both countries has increased merchandise trade in both directions, though Bangladesh has concerns about the adverse trade imbalance. Talks on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement are going on.
There is, however, the looming shadow of Bangladesh’s next general election in January 2024. India, too, will have its general election in May 2024. Election season in Bangladesh is not about polite debates on TV and peaceful rallies with speeches. It continues to be about strikes, disruptions and street battles between protesters and the police. The ruling Awami League (AL) and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are both adept at these methods. Street demonstrations have begun and clashes with the police have already left eight dead and dozens injured. Both sides have accused the other of instigating the violence.
The BNP has again demanded Hasina’s resignation and the appointment of a neutral caretaker government to conduct the elections, since it does not have confidence in the government and the Bangladesh Election Commission to conduct free and fair elections. Such allegations have been levelled in the past against both the AL and BNP. The arrests and detentions of several BNP leaders have further inflamed passions. The caretaker government system was expunged from the Constitution in 2011 after Hasina assumed power in 2009. BNP chief Khaleda Zia is incapacitated by illness and her heir apparent, son Tarique Rehman, remains in exile in London. He cannot return because of convictions and prison verdicts in several cases of corruption. He was also given the death sentence for his part in the conspiracy for a 2004 grenade attack on Hasina’s political rally.
Western embassies in Dhaka issue regular statements urging caution, while China and Russia have issued statements accusing western countries of interference. Curiously, the US administration under President Joe Biden has been proactive in demanding free and fair elections. The US has imposed sanctions on officers of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)—Bangladesh’s anti-terrorist force which has done a commendable job in curbing terrorism—and denied them visas on human rights grounds. The RAB has been accused of extra-judicial killings.
The US has also announced it will be denying visas to anyone undermining fair elections. These measures have incensed Hasina, which has led to a cooling of relations with the US. The US believes it has a divine right to promote and protect democracy everywhere, except where it thinks it is not in its own interests, though the reasons are geopolitical. Bangladeshis angrily point out that the US invited Pakistan but not their country to the Summit for Democracy. No sanctions akin to those imposed on Bangladesh have been imposed on Pakistan, though it is common knowledge that the Pakistan army remains the de facto ruler of its country. The US still designates Pakistan as a non-Nato ally, supplies armament spares and provides support for the F-16 fighter aircraft it had sold to Pakistan. Western double standards in geopolitics are par for the course.
It is rumoured that Bangladesh denied permission for a US military facility on St Martin’s Island and has also refused to sign various bilateral agreements for military cooperation that the US has pushed. India and the US have signed such agreements. The US is also wary of Bangladesh getting sucked into China’s orbit with its massive Belt and Road Initiative-linked projects and loans. The US’s role in opposing the birth of Bangladesh and its alleged complicity in the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family members will be dredged up during the election campaigns. Nationalist sentiments will be aroused to accuse the US of supporting the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami alliance.
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A Western campaign against Hasina has been launched by the BNP and Islamist organisations, ably supported by Pakistan and the pan-Islamist network of which the Jamaat is a part. Hasina has been in power for 14 years, winning three elections in a row. The BNP boycotted the 2014 election and fared very poorly in the 2018 one, promptly alleging that there was massive rigging and other malpractices.
Both AL and BNP have committed voters, with AL having a marginal lead. The main swing vote comes from uncommitted voters, many of whom are 18-25 years of age. A determining factor will be the economy. While Bangladesh has achieved remarkable progress, the pandemic, the Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war have resulted in higher energy costs and rising inflation. Foreign reserves have fallen from a high of $45 billion to around $22 billion. Bangladesh, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has reached out to the IMF for loans. Garment workers have demonstrated for higher wages to meet the rising costs. The readymade garments sector is the mainstay of the country’s economy, comprising 80 percent of exports. Uncommitted voters in the working age population are very sensitive to the rise in living costs.
India will prefer to have Hasina back in power to ensure continuity. She enjoys widespread support despite the allegations of corruption and authoritarian actions. Another BNP-Jamaat government in Dhaka will have to prove its credentials and commit that it will not adopt anti-India policies again. The AL has the potential of returning to power but it will be tougher than in the last three elections.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
Former Secretary in the foreign ministry and former High Commissioner to Bangladesh. Founding Director of DeepStrat, a think tank