Modi’s actions are paving the way for China to exert greater influence on Bangladesh
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made no secret of its unflinching political stance against minorities in recent years -- at least in its quest to rile up its political base. The recent mobilization of nationalist policies within sovereign Indian territory is merely an institutional extension of decades-old right-wing propaganda.
Those being affected are predominantly Muslim Indians and stateless minorities. The geo-political significance of anti-Muslim posturing by the BJP regime is a worry for Dhaka, and indeed, for the entirety of the Saarc region -- add to this India’s current troubles with Nepal is a recipe for the continuation of an all-out proxy conflict in the region between China and India.
The spillover effect of the Modi government’s statutory agendas in recent times however, begs a much deeper question for Bangladesh -- can Sheikh Hasina continue putting her faith in her most trusted ally?
Finding the diplomatic nuance to condemn radical ideological actions of the Indian government is nothing less than a challenge for Bangladesh.
In recent times, we have seen Bangladeshi policy-makers express their discomfort regarding Modi’s India. On the other end, PM Hasina is, internationally, perhaps at her strongest today -- and her commitment to Chinese investments and the resulting political support, has grown exponentially.
This poses a dual-edged paradigm for the future of South Asia -- especially given Bangladesh’s rise as a regional power.
In 2018, the BJP President Amit Shah did not mince words in terming fleeing Bengali migrants to India as termites -- the notion of illegal Bengali emigration had subsequently been an area of focus for Prime Minister Modi during the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections.
It is safe to say that whilst Modi has mastered a window-dressed approach towards cozying up with his neighbours, his own party derives political strength by implementing national policies detrimental to the idea of a progressive and secular South Asia.
And it is here where China has played a long yet fruitful test match -- and catapulted itself as a potent diplomatic and economic partner to traditional Indian allies such as Bangladesh, in addition to bagging a debt-ridden Pakistan as the poster child of Chinese saviourism.
The implementation of the controversial 2019 Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, succeeding a presidential decree which revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (Article 370 of the Indian Constitution), created deep and strenuous tensions between Indian citizens across the country, in addition to alienating Kashmiris from the rest of the country -- given Chinese and Pakistani interest with respect to this hostile region, the issue of Kashmir continues to be discussed beyond borders.
Earlier, Modi cemented his transition from being the prime minister of a country founded on Nehruvian secularism to the leader who anointed himself as the Hindu Messiah -- once the site of a mosque demolished by hardline Hindu nationalists almost three decades ago, the Modi-led inauguration of the Ayodhya temple project marked a watershed moment for India.
Ayodhya has been a contentious issue between Hindus and Muslims for decades -- and the actions of the BJP in coherence with its policies on Kashmir, is only expected to activate and enhance pockets of sectarianism.
Unfortunately, whilst post-colonial South Asia saw the creation of different nations based on independent values, religion as a narrative has evolved itself to be a transnational tool for conflict in the region -- and it is here where a country like Bangladesh has its own apprehensions.
Amidst the shift of India to the very right of its political spectrum, Dhaka has increasingly become more Beijing-friendly in the past decade -- in 2015, China replaced India as Bangladesh’s largest trading partner.
In July 2020, China declared tariff exemptions for 97% of all exports from Bangladesh -- this was a clear indication of China’s willingness to exert dominance with an apparatus which has provided political coverage to the Hasina government through a myriad of challenges.
Amidst a period where accusations of the suppression of democratic space has remained ever-constant, Hasina has received the backing of her global partners, singularly with respect to the strides made by the Bangladeshi economy.
Politically however, while Indo-Bangla relations remain positive on paper, the role of China in prioritizing Bangladesh as a geo-political tool of its prized BRI, has never been better expressed than Beijing’s pro-active measures to reach out to Dhaka recently.
The Modi government’s political decisions in cognizance with increased Chinese investments naturally, have had an impact on the Bangladeshi mindset -- certain quarters of politically adept individuals in the country feel that India has a tendency to exploit Bangladesh.
And then there are those like former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia and the BNP, which have used such anti-Indian sentiments as their go-to-issue before elections in the past.
The Ayodhya temple, issues surrounding Kashmir, and politicians like Amit Shah, provide cover to these groups to push the Chinese narrative -- because at the end of the day, having either China or India as your international guardian is certainly mutually exclusive.
In the past, the Indian National Congress headed by Sonia Gandhi had a deep and almost ancestral relationship with the Awami League -- those days are far gone.
The barrage of anti-Muslim programs by the Modi government and the political demise of Mrs Gandhi’s party have undeniably allowed China to increasingly monopolize an economic space which was perhaps destined for India -- and it is here where citizen perceptions is seen to be increasingly crucial.
The very Bangladeshis who criticize the philosophical direction of the Indian government have ignored the disastrous conditions of the Uighur Muslims in China -- there is a clear double standard here.
Foreign Minister AK Momen made a crucial point about this recently -- he said that Bangladesh’s victory is India’s victory and that the bilateral relations are based on blood. But he did not shy away from stating an obvious truth -- economic issues shape our ties with China.
Therefore, it is clear that while Bangladesh continues to prize its relationship with India, it cannot ignore its economic realities -- in the public mindset, whether it be unresolved water issues or political concerns regarding sectarian violence, the direction taken by India socio-politically, will ultimately determine the path taken by Dhaka with regards to Beijing. India has a special place in our hearts -- therefore, the action of India by definition carry greater scrutiny.
Irrespective of how Indo-Bangla relations are formally defined today, it is certain that the Indian diplomatic circle has a duty to reflect on how and why Dhaka is perceived to be estranging itself from New Delhi. For PM Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi economy is paramount -- and any narrative of a historical relationship remains a subsidiary, and not a fundamental pivot for foreign policy-making.
Therefore, the further India subsides to the political right, the more opportunity China gets to make its mark on Bangladesh. On the outset, it seems absurd for the average Bangladeshi to support the tilt towards Beijing -- especially considering China’s disastrous record on human, political, and civil rights.
But the truth remains, Bangladeshis have a more vigorous opinion of the actions of the Indian government due to our long history with the country -- therefore when the average citizen of a predominantly Muslim nation witnesses the Modi government formulating policies seen to be anti-Muslim in nature, they feel enraged.
And the effect of such on international relations is daunting -- and clearly visible today.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of economics and international relations. Email: [email protected]