Amit Shah catapulted to fame as a strategist during India’s 2014 general elections after he, with the help of a public relations firm, orchestrated an election campaign that addressed all issues bedevilling the country. State-wise, the campaign focused on matters close to the heart of the electorate. The result was a resounding victory for Bharatiya Janata Party.
The communal card was subtly played, as was the thorny issue of illegal migration. Foreign policy was based on one side as the call for Akhand Bharat or undivided India. On the other, there was a call for peace and conciliation with neighbours. It was left to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tell migrants from Bangladesh that post-elections they would have to leave. Neighbouring leaders were invited to the inauguration of the government.
Four years later, Shah was again behind a new campaign that rammed the Akhand Bharat theme down the voters’ throats. The nationalism of Hindutva philosophy succeeded even in the face of a diseased economy and conveniently hiding the communalism the party was relentlessly driving.
What happened since then, cutting secularism to shreds, has been widely debated and substantively discussed. Putting a Hindu cleric at the helm of affairs was an experiment that has exposed it all. The long-standing Article 370 that had given vestiges of protection to Kashmir was done away with.
Yes, there were condemnations and outrage at the violation of United Nations resolutions. India did not give a hoot. The two neighbours that matter, Pakistan and Bangladesh, had their own views. Pakistan, having lost diplomatic plausibility since 1971, reached out to find it had no friends to speak of, that would support the communal card. Bangladesh went along with the view that it was an internal matter for India. All of it was geopolitical interests.
Obviously, mere campaigns do not work. Properly planned, they strum the heart-strings of what the populace zealously guard.
The failure of Congress to reinvent itself, including either reshuffling or changing the dynasty-based leadership approach, played into BJP’s hands. The inability to string together workable coalitions was the other factor.
The BJP success in reaching deep into the country was spectacular. The next focus was on state elections. This time the horizons expanded for BJP. This was coupled with the party getting support from the courts, stifling dissenting views in the media and pushing ahead with the notorious National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
So emboldened, Amit Shah could use words such as “termites”: Bangladeshis that remain illegally there. Bangladesh was dismissive of the comment as “campaign rhetoric”, though it was used more for the polls in West Bengal.
However, its ire at the NRC and CAA in terms of implications for the country led to a significant “cooling” of relations. A flurry of visits to Bangladesh and statements sought to assuage concerns and sweeten the bitterness. That too came in the wake of blunting China’s geopolitical strategy.
There are more unresolved issues between the two countries. They are unlikely to be resolved any time soon, no matter which way West Bengal election results swing. A BJP majority, highly unlikely, would bring to the fore the Akhand Bharat agenda.
A Trinamool Congress majority would mean uncertainty of river-water sharing. As Mamata Banerjee pointed out, she loves Bangladesh, its people and their leader.
When it comes to water, she cannot accommodate by turning parts of Bengal into deserts. Perhaps she might want to see what has become of the Barind region.
On the contrary, from a connectivity point of view, Bangladesh has provided rail, land, river and sea transit at just a fraction of the cost. Without such access, militarily and economically India would have been worse off.
Akhand Bharat card
Hospitals and shops in West Bengal and elsewhere have been delivered a sucker-punch by the Covid-19 travel restrictions.
That has not stopped the Akhand Bharat card. BJP leaders have been outspoken about how swathes of land mostly in Faridpur and Khulna, have been “given away” to Bangladesh. About how people of Bangladeshi origin are threatening the population balance of Assam, Tripura and West Bengal. So much so, that Amit Shah finds it convenient to blame hunger, rather than communal strife, as the cause of continued illegal migration.
Bangladesh’s foreign minister used the true but inappropriate response that most of the country’s population has better latrines than India’s. That was supported by the world indicators of better economic growth.
Probably, the more appropriate response would have been that Bangladesh’s envoys did not visit the Babri Masjid demolition site to sympathise with the local Muslims or even offer to help build another. That we did not send anyone to Kashmir. And above all – Bangladesh does not have expansionism on its mind.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.