Following the military coup in Bangladesh in January, India was relieved. The putsch seemed to mark a decisive moment in Bangladesh’s fortunes, which was a welcome shift from the instability that had characterised Dhaka politics over the previous year. There is a fair degree of suspicion about India’s role and intentions in the eastern neighbour, and an anti-India platform strikes a popular chord in Bangladesh. While the perception that the Awami League was close to the Indian establishment made the party reluctant to engage too closely with New Delhi while it was in power, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been traditionally more vocal against what it sees as India’s ‘interference’.
With the democratic system in place, New Delhi subsequently felt that it was losing out both ways, and not gaining substantive concessions. It wanted a stable regime, which would curb ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, allow Indian investment, crack down on outfits using Bangladeshi territory as a base to fuel militancy in the Northeast, and address the contentious issue of economic migration across the border into India. The Bangladesh Army, India calculated, was best placed to deliver on these key concerns.
Five months later, that policy appears to remain largely unchanged. The caretaker government’s swift execution of a few Islamic militants convicted of killing two judges, and its openness to Indian corporates (especially the Tatas, after the latter’s failed attempts at investment the last few years), are seen in some quarters in Delhi as vindications of India’s position.
But India should know that army rule is not a sustainable arrangement in Bangladesh, where the thirst for freedom runs deep, and the military invariably seeks entrenchment. This was evident after the original plan to exile Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina fell flat. The widespread unrest within the country makes clear that Bangladeshis are not willing to meekly let go of their hopes for representative democracy. India claims it has privately conveyed to the Bangladesh Army that it should hold the elections sooner than later. But that is as far as New Delhi seems willing to go – though one could have hoped for a public position on democracy, as it had in the case of Nepal a year ago.
The circumspection in New Delhi may also stem from the fact that India, in fact, has limited capacity and leverage in influencing domestic politics in Bangladesh. This is in direct contrast to Nepal, where New Delhi has at times micro-managed the peace process; or to Sri Lanka, where it has the ability to intervene in the conflict’s dynamics. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs does not have as many levers of influence that work on Dhaka; political parties and civil society in Delhi have neither organic linkages with their counterparts in the Bangladesh capital, nor sustained interest in developments on that side. But as the regional power, its position on political issues in the neighbourhood remains important, with many other international actors willing to follow the Indian lead.
New Delhi’s stand may be understandable, given that its interests of commerce, security and transit were not served in Bangladesh’s democratic interlude. But the militarist tilt evident in the support of the caretaker regime is to be criticised, not only from the moral standpoint but also because it will not be pragmatic in the long run. Army rule cannot last forever, and political parties will come back to power before too long. If India is remembered as the major actor that sided with, when all is said and done, an autocracy, it will stand to lose all the more when a democratic dispensation does come to power. Additionally, if India wants to be taken seriously as a rising world power, it needs to be seen as being supportive of basic democratic values in its own neighbourhood.
New Delhi would be well advised to rethink its hands-off approach on Bangladesh. Outright condemnation may seem overdone, and a proactive approach to oust the regime would be quite out of the question – indeed, a dangerous adventure. But moral support to the political parties and a strong message to the Bangladesh Army to relinquish control of the political process could go a long way in salvaging India’s reputation among Bangladeshis, as well as in creating the environment for restoration of democracy in Dhaka.