The potency of a recent social media firestorm over a photograph that went viral -- where former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee is seen sitting on a chair by himself with dignitaries from Bangladesh’s civil and political leadership standing behind him -- is a matter that Indian foreign policy brass should take seriously.
Given that Bangladesh has no credible opinion polls, public reactions available via social media is one of the few data-driven indicators of popular sentiment. On that front, the homogeneous nature of the public outburst against the photo, and the lack of public defense coming from the most ardent of pro-India sections of Bangladeshi civil society, is indeed a point to note.
Indications are already there that someone somewhere in the Indian hierarchy took note of the outburst, as photos of that meet and greet session are no longer visible on the official Facebook page of the Indian High Commission.
A point to note here is that the Bangladeshi mainstream media remained mostly quiet around this issue. Therefore, it must have been the social media alone that the Indian officials took into account when deciding to take down the photos. This is pretty impressive, to say the least.
Why so much fuss over one photo?
Having been ruled by exterior forces, lords, and rulers for thousands of years, Bangladeshis remain highly class conscious. Who is touching whose feet, who is bowing to whom, who gets to sit where, and as evidenced in the latest controversy, who sits and who stands behind whom -- all of these matter.
Some had legitimate grounds to be upset about the fact that a former Bangladeshi President HM Ershad was made to stand along with the sitting Bangladeshi Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury behind a former Indian president in Bangladesh.
The age argument -- which is also a typical Bengali consideration capable of superseding potent class-based protocols -- did not hold in this case either because Ershad is 89 years young vs Pranab who is 82.
The timing of the release and subsequent withdrawal of the photograph(s) was also befitting the popular outburst. The last time Pranab Mukherjee came to Bangladesh was just before the 2014 general election.
Four years later, Bangladesh is once again preparing for another election with another round of customary election-related turbulence, with pretty much identical uncertainties that prevailed four years ago.
Many in the political story-telling business have posited that Begum Khaleda Zia’s whimsical last-minute denial to meet Mukherjee during his last visit was one of the key factors behind India’s quick and forceful support behind the current government, while many Westerners were hesitant and some were outright opposed to the Indian position back then.
Mukherjee’s visit to Bangladesh is also his first after the recent publication of his memoir, where he candidly wrote how he ensured the release of Bangladesh’s top political leadership from jail in 2008 and how he provided job security to Bangladesh’s former army chief Moin U Ahmed upon an implied or impending assumption of power by Sheikh Hasina at that time.
The memoir was the talk of the town upon its release in Bangladesh, as key excerpts from the book made thousands of rounds on social and print media.
The timing of the release and subsequent withdrawal of the photograph(s) was also befitting the popular outburst
Mukherjee’s extremely candid assertions in that memoir fueled and confirmed the speculation that he was indeed the key figure that enabled and abetted the controversial nature of Bangladesh’s 2014 general election.
Given the timing and the political backdrop discussed above, it is not a stretch for at least those Bangladeshis who stayed home on the election day of 2014, to think that he was back in Dhaka to showcase the lasting nature of his exploits.
Could this be just poor event-management?
It is obviously possible that the entire photo controversy was a colossal event mismanagement on the part of the Indian HC.
It is true that foreign policy is as much a craft of non-verbal signals and nuances as it is the craft of written protocols and treaties. That is why serious negotiations take place beforehand regarding any photo-ops where state dignitaries are present.
Who stands where next to whom, who enters first, who gives the concluding speech, who sits next to whom on a dinner table -- all are pre-negotiated and choreographed by a class of experts known as the “protocol officers.”
The Indian dignitary and the highest ranking Bangladeshi in the photograph were both former presidents, not the current ones. Therefore, it is possible that such negotiations were not as stringent. As a result, when a former Bangladeshi president found himself standing behind his Indian counterpart in an Indian embassy event, the Bangladeshi gentleman may have just gone with the flow, simply not to create a scene.
However, given the fact that Mukherjee is from West Bengal, and that his wife has a Bangladeshi heritage, he must be aware of the local sensitivities around sitting and standing.
It may sound silly to any laymen, but having been India’s president and having visited many countries as such, Pranab Mukherjee must have heard about detailed discussions taking place among his own protocol officers and the ones from the countries he visited regarding diplomatic sensitivities around such photo sessions.
Therefore, even if one agrees that it was a mere event mismanagement by some lower-level embassy staff, to the eyes of the many Bangladeshis, Mukherjee ended up being perceived as the face of Indian arrogance at yet another sensitive juncture in Bangladesh’s political cycles.
Anti-Indianism on the rise?
Four years ago, right after the January 2014 general election, I urged the Indian leadership to re-calibrate their posture in Bangladesh in an op-ed published in Dhaka Tribune. Indian vernacular daily The Hindu quoted my words in its own op-ed, with apparent retrospection at that time.
Citing the ascending level of anti-Indianism in the wake of the 2014 elections, I wrote: “Anti-Indianism of historic proportions is on the rise in Bangladesh. This cannot be, by any standard, welcome news for Indian business policy, geo-strategy, or for that matter, counter-terrorism matters related to Bangladesh.”
Seeing the aftermath of the latest photo fiasco four years later, I would repeat those same words to our friends in India.
Having made some large investments and having established several favorable trade deals in Bangladesh, India now has more to lose in 2018 than it did in 2014.
Having firmly stood behind a dubious election in 2014, and with some loose indications of its willingness to stand behind yet another one, India will only fuel the further rise of anti-Indianism in Bangladesh, which may someday turn into a pressure cooker waiting to explode from the viewpoint of India’s larger foreign policy objectives in South Asia.
Bangladeshis, in general, continue to be a friendly bunch for Indians due to India’s support during the 1971 Liberation War and strong penetration of Indian culture in Bangladesh.
Aside from the fringe elements of Bangladesh’s political spectrum, two of our major political parties with about 90% of the vote no longer have any semblance of anti-Indianism in their official political posture. Therefore, India has the room to be much more generous, respectful, and accommodating to a wider spectrum of Bangladeshi political class than it has been inclined to be.
Unlike 40 other Muslim countries in the world, Bangladeshis had electoral democracy and gave their blood for their right to vote. India, for the last four years, stands accused of tinkering with that much-coveted right cherished by the Bangladeshis.
Therefore, 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.
Quick removal of the questionable photographs from the Indian HC’s Facebook page is a praise-worthy start in tempering down the current outcry, but India must know it has much more to do over the next 12 months.
Shafquat Rabbee is a finance professional who writes on global finance and geopolitics. He spent over a decade working for some of the largest global banks, ratings agencies, and management consulting firms. He is an alumnus of Cornell University and University of Miami.