Intriguing Indifference: Examining India-Bangladesh Bilateral Ties

Dr. Satish Kumar

With so many ups and downs in the past, New Delhi has pinned high hopes on the military backed Caretaker Government in neighboring Bangladesh for better and progressive ties. Though strange on the part of India to give positive nod to a military powered regime, it strongly believes that the current regime may continue for longer and for better. It seems the campaign for democracy in Southern Asia is not in the priority list of India, for now.

Despite making much noise about the developments across the border where the democracy is seemingly in distress, New Delhi has been a mute witness to the bloodless coup of sort in Dhaka under the thin guise of civilian control. India for now is overjoyed as the Bangladesh government sent across a message that it would work towards New Delhi’s concerns about its security.

It is highly significant because of the changed circumstances and willingness of India to carry out business as usual with the caretaker government, despite a visible suspension of democratic activities in Bangladesh.

The caretaker government in Dhaka under Fakhruddin Ahmed that took office in January 12 this year announced that national and local elections would be postponed for at least 18 months until the end of 2008. The decision, which obviously breaches the country’s constitution, puts an unelected regime and its Military backers in charge for an indefinite period. This could be termed as a step towards a Military dictatorship.

The army, which has assumed a prominent political role strongly, backed the decision to postpone elections. Army chief, Lt. Gen. Moeen Uddin Ahmed though downplayed all speculations regarding imposition of Martial law for now, he himself told a conference earlier in Dhaka that the interim government would build a “new brand of democracy to overcome the country’s chronic poor governance”. We do not want to go back to an ‘elective democracy’ where corruption becomes all pervasive, governance suffers in terms of insecurity and violation of rights, and where political criminalization threatens the very survival and integrity of the state.”

The question, doing the round in Delhi and elsewhere, is, to what extent Lt Gen Moeen Uddin Ahmed calling the shots in Dhaka? Is the army a real power behind the government? The caretaker government presently includes two retired major generals and a former police chief. The election commission (EC) includes a military officer, Brigadier General (Retd.) M. Sakhawat. The chairman of the powerful anti-corruption commission is a retired army chief, Lt. Gen. Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury.

However, India’s silence will certainly have a negative impact on India’s image in the Subcontinent, which fails to learn a trick or two on Neighborhood policy from bigger Asian neighbor, China. The country (China) has fourteen neighbors and has been maintaining balanced relations with almost all of them. Even, its presence in Bangladesh is bigger than that of India. Whereas, the influence of India in the neighborhood has waned in the past few years, knowing very well that Bangladesh (besides Myanmar) is India's link to Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, both Myanmar and Bangladesh preferred Chinese investment for developing their own oil sector and building infrastructures (roads and pipelines) which will allow Beijing to ship out exports and import crude.

While China is taking all the pulp out of the fruit, there is another development which would make Indian policy makers to rethink and act fast. Bangladesh and Pakistan is coming closer than in the past and readying to solve all contentious issues now and forever.

Sadly enough India is not doing anything except issuing customary MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) press notes and pinning only hopes in the air. New Delhi badly hopes that anti-India dust will be cleaned up by military regime there and it can address energy issues and its northeastern militancy issue earnestly.

The prevalent thinking inside the power corridors in New Delhi’s South Block is that India cannot wait for democracy to be restored to do business with Dhaka, given the high stakes. The army-backed interim government in Dhaka though expressed desire to forge closer ties with New Delhi, there is a distinct coolness between the policy makers in both countries, almost amounting to indifference towards each other.

Author Note
Dr. Satish Kumar teaches political science at MMH College, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh