India and US at odds over Bangladesh Poll

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina at the G20 Summit chaired by India on September 9, 2023 (PMO Photo)

Sreeradha Datta
Sonipat, Haryana, India, January 4, 2024

Despite their burgeoning strategic partnership, India and the US have divergent positions on the impending general election (on January 7, 2024) in Bangladesh.

Their virtually polar opposite positions have been a subject of discussion in the region and in Bangladesh itself.

The Bangladesh government has been portraying the January 7 general elections as multi-party and inclusive.

A closer look shows an entirely different picture.

The electoral landscape of Bangladesh is defined by two large political parties – the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The BNP,  along with 14 smaller parties, is boycotting the elections.

These parties believe that under the AL government, seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, there is no possibility of free and fair polls.

The near complete absence of the opposition from the elections severely undermines the credibility of the democratic process.

The international community, however, is divided in its response to the one-sided election.

International community divided

Bangladesh’s two important neighbours, India and China, have put their faith in the AL government of Sheikh Hasina to hold peaceful, free and fair elections.

The US has been the sole critical voice, questioning the repressive and anti-opposition measures of the government. It has repeatedly called for democratic norms and standards to be respected in Bangladesh.

Russia and Iran have also lent support to Bangladesh’s electoral process. Russia has even accused the US and Europe of exporting ‘neocolonialism’ and ‘blatant interference’ in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.

The EU had sent a mission to Bangladesh to assess the prospects of a fair and free election in July 2023. In December a delegation from the EU met with various political leaders including government officials but there has been no clarity on whether the EU will be sending election observers to Bangladesh.

While Bangladesh has invited foreign envoys as election observers, just 25 foreigners have so far applied to the Election Commission to observe the poll. Former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding will lead a 10-person Commonwealth team, including India, to observe the polls.

The US is apprehensive that the polls will not be free or fair. It has threatened visa sanctions against those in Bangladesh who are found “complicit” in or “responsible” for “undermining the democratic election process.”

Hasina’s sharp response 

The response of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been sharp: “So Bangladeshis wouldn’t be able to come to America if sanctions are imposed. So be it. …. We’ve enough employment opportunities in our country now.”

It was generally accepted that the US and India shared similar views about South Asia. However, their position on the Bangladesh polls has disproved that assumption. Their perceptions about the electoral situation unfolding in Bangladesh are diametrically opposite.

Given the strong Indo-Bangladesh ties as well as India’s traditional friendship with the AL leaders, Delhi’s support for the elections is not unexpected.

Indian support for the Hasina government may be due to its rather difficult experience with the BNP government when it was in power from 2001-2006.

Bangladesh at that time harboured several anti-Indian insurgent groups and there were terrorist attacks in India originating in Bangladesh. In the famous Chittagong Arms Haul case,  several truckloads of arms seized were apparently intended for insurgent groups operating in India’s northeastern states.

India’s preference

With the memories of terrorist attacks continuing to haunt India, Delhi believes that the only hope for stability and secularism lies in the re-election of Sheikh Hasina.

The turnaround in bilateral ties since 2010 has further strengthened India’s faith in the Hasina government. Delhi believes that the Hasina government understands India’s core security concerns better than the opposition BNP.

The Hasina government has reciprocated this faith by forging partnerships and expanding border logistics infrastructure to boost bilateral trade.

For India, any non-Awami League government will upset the positive bilateral dynamics that exist today. That is why pragmatism rather than upholding democratic norms seems to determine the Indian attitude to the impending elections in Bangladesh.

India would, therefore, much rather support a dispensation that it believes will preserve political stability than democratic norms.

As the US continues to examine Bangladesh through the lens of democracy, for the present, the Indian and the US perceptions on Bangladeshi politics are unlikely to converge.

Sreeradha Datta is a Professor at Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at ISAS-NUS, Singapore. The above article, published in 360info has been reproduced here under Creative Commons Licence.

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