In September, Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, the former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, noted the possibility of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League being reduced to an embarrassing minority in the next Parliament if there is a free and fair election. This assessment is not particularly surprising as numerous Bangladesh Awami League leaders have expressed this fear to their supporters. What is instructive though is that a consensus across the political spectrum has emerged in Bangladesh that without a “managed election”, the Awami League has no chance in the December 30 general election – and a “managed election”, which is the most likely outcome, cannot be managed without India’s support.
Indeed, India’s foreign policy stalwarts batted with gusto for Bangladesh’s ruling party before and after the 2014 national election in which the voter turn-around was approximately 7% and 153 out of 300 members won their seats uncontested.
India’s commitment to promoting democracy in its neighbour thus remains – for lack of a better word – untested. Truth be told, Bangladesh has benefitted enormously from bilateral trade with India and Indian investments. However, as India prefers a regime rather than its people, the majority of Bangladeshis have now ceased to view India as their partner – and only that of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Whether this supposed patron-client relationship with the Awami League benefits India in the long run is a question worth pondering.
Indian exports to Bangladesh are set to cross $9 billion this year, while it imports only $900 million worth of goods from the country – making it India’s ninth largest trading partner. India exports more to this neighbour than to all of Latin America and, if you do not consider the service industry, quite possibly more than the United States too.
There were at least half a million Indians working in Bangladesh as mid- and top-level executives in 2009, according to the Bangladesh government. It is impossible to estimate this number (TV reporters have claimed the number is more than double) or exactly how much they remit to India, as these cash flows are mostly unregulated. According to Silicon India, this number could be as high as $3.7 billion per year.
These numbers are truly staggering, yet India’s approach to safeguarding and nurturing the partnership seems wanting.
No superpower can reap the benefits of a bilateral relationship indefinitely by backing an immensely unpopular regime. Such unwavering support inevitably reduces the role of honest arbitrator that an emerging superpower must hold on to.
Instead of reaching out to the people of Bangladesh, India has hitched all of its political and economic leverage to one political party, which runs the country in a way that is more akin to a predatory autocrat than a custodian of the people – criticise us, you are behind bars; shut your mouth, we will take care of you.
According to Ain o Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi rights group, at least 519 people have fallen victim to enforced disappearances by law enforcement agencies since 2010 while 300 people are still missing.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera, “People are almost always worried that they are going to disappear, they are going to be killed, and no one will know what exactly happened to them.”
Such brutality and lawlessness, according to the majority of Bangladeshis, is a direct result of India’s unrestrained indulgence towards Sheikh Hasina and her party. If there is a true security threat emanating from Bangladesh for India, “it should be a sudden outburst of popular anti-Indian sentiment owing to a perceived or real arrogant exercise of power shown by Indian officials regarding Bangladesh’s domestic affairs”, according to the Bangladeshi-American columnist Shafquat Rabbee.
This assessment is particularly poignant in light of the current fiscal health of Bangladeshi banks. At least $2.6 billion has been plundered in the last 10 years from 14 banks, said the Centre for Policy Dialogue, the country’s leading independent think tank. As of June, the 28.2% non-performing loans in state-owned commercial banks are much higher than the 11.5% non-performing loans of Thai commercial banks before the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s – which practically makes Bangladesh a ticking bomb waiting to explode, financially.
A 2014 report by The Economist Intelligence Unit and the British Council estimated that even within an educated group of college and university degree-holders, the unemployment rate in Bangladesh is nearly 47%. While the number is petrifying and can mostly be attributed to the poor quality of education, the majority of young, educated, middle-class Bangladeshis do not think it is due to their incompetence. They believe Indians are taking away their jobs. In the face of a financial crisis, coupled with a large number of Indian expatriates working in Bangladesh’s financial and manufacturing industry, the country will become a boiling cauldron of anti-Indianism.
There are times Sheikh Hasina’s heavy-handed methods can be successful in restraining youth resentment, but when the bough breaks (not if), it is bilateral trade and economic relations that will take a severe hit. It is a preventable disruption that India can ill afford to ignore.
Neither does Bangladesh have the ability to not trade with India, nor can India afford to take back half a million top-level executives and re-employ them. To secure a mutually beneficial future, India should aim to build a robust relationship with Bangladesh forged in people’s trust. Neither Sheikh Hasina, nor Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia can achieve this for India – only the people of Bangladesh can do this if they are convinced that India’s role in their country is that of a partner, not a master.
Faham Abdus Salam is a Canberra-based regulatory scientist.