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Hoping for a strong Modi

  • Published at 06:07 pm April 29th, 2014

Bangladesh is facing an interesting future. Its largest and most important neighbour by far, India, may have a new government in a few months time. If there is a new government then it will probably be headed by Narenda Modi of the BJP.

As readers will know the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is a Hindu nationalist party, and Modi himself is a proud member of the RSS, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu chauvinist cultural organisation.

These organisations have for many years been feeding on anti-Muslim sentiments, and although Modi nowadays professes policies that are more focused on development and economic issues than cultural nationalist ones, he still cannot make himself say sorry for the events that killed thousands of Muslims under his watch. For a politician of such ambition, surely a simple apology would not matter much? But his inability or unwillingness to do so suggests that his antipathy against Muslims is not just a political gimmick but something that runs deep in his personality.

What can a much smaller neighbour, the Muslim majority Bangladesh hope for with such a man at the helm just across the border?

The first thing to note is that the position of prime minister in India is a relatively less powerful position than that of the prime minister of Bangladesh. Formal institutions are stronger and more independent in India than in Bangladesh, for instance the courts, the election commission, and various other government institutions.

A second thing to note is that India being a federal republic has some powers divested to the states, meaning out of reach of the prime minister. This is particularly so in cases where the state is run by a party different from that of the central government.

A third thing to note is that although important powers do rest with the central government, the political reality of contemporary India is that of coalition politics. No central government can hope to remain independent and efficient without the considerable goodwill of regional parties.

A fourth point to note, and perhaps the most important one, is that India’s general objectives will not change with a new government. Whichever party heads the government, the general aim will be the same. The overwhelming political consensus in India today is that of economic growth.

The Congress too wants economic growth, even if they emphasise on distribution more than growth in their election campaign. Indians in general are all in favour of economic growth. They are in favour of foreign investments, of improved export, of greater opportunities for business, and of more and better jobs for the millions of hopefuls all over the country.

To meet such aspirations India will need friendly relations with world powers, the ability to match strength with China, the absence of conflicts along its borders in order to look good in the UN, massive import of energy fuels, and new markets.

India today has a relatively positive image in the world, based on its ability to build economic growth while ensuring (relatively) social distribution and maintaining democracy. Modi is business-friendly, and his businessmen friends will tell him how important this soft power is for new opportunities overseas.

Modi also realises the need for friendly relations with countries in the Middle East. No economic development is possible without oil and gas. Modi also realises the need to aviod, if possible, conflicts that will ruffle American or European feathers. International conflicts will ruffle feathers.

The US is India’s largest trading partner, but even larger is the European countries combined in the EU. With friends like that, you don’t need enemies. Your friends will keep you on the straight and narrow.

India’s priorities are set by deep aspirations in the country and will not change much even if the Hindu nationalist topples the secular dynasty from the throne. A strong prime minister will do his utmost to steer the country towards a direction that seeks to fulfill those aspirations.

For Bangladesh it would mean politics as usual. Perhaps a little less cordial than the present bonhomie between Dhaka and New Delhi, but still a professional relationship. With Modi at the helm, New Delhi will wish a good, efficient, working relationship with Dhaka.

Issues of common concern are the corridor to India’s north-east, trade, and the many issues relating to the border including water sharing. But a strong government will not wish to prolong such conflicts, however Hindu nationalist it may be. Business will remain the primary aim.

The fly in the soup

The question is how a weak prime minister might do. It may well be that Modi will not win as many seats as his spin doctors suggest. Opinion polls are generally unreliable, and tend to overemphasise the urban and the middle class, where Modi’s support is higher.

Besides, the Indian voter, apart from being prone to change of opinion at the last minute, is reticent with information about his or her preferences. Moreover, the American style projection of Modi as the main man on whom all light shines is an untested strategy in the Indian context. Equally important is the fact that in some of the large states, most notably in Uttar Pradesh, the four big parties in the fray (SP, BSP, BJP and Congress) all hover around the 20%-25% mark.

This makes it virtually impossible to guess the outcome. Parallel situations prevail in other states. We have in other words only a dim idea about the outcome of the election. Will Modi secure 220 seats for the BJP? Or perhaps 230? Or only 190?

A weak Modi will be vulnerable. He has a number of close allied parties in the existing alliance, but a weak result for these or for the NDA itself will make it necessary for Modi to find new friends. This is not an unlikely outcome. The problem is that the available partners will sell themselves dearly. A possible candidate in this respect is Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress from West Bengal.

She may well secure 20 seats in her home state, a number that will make her extremely interesting to a weak Modi.

Mamata Banerjee has improved her chief ministerial touch over the two and a half years of her rule. But she has some of the maverick agitator of the past left in her. This feature resurfaces every now and then, and we last saw it during the election when she thought herself as above law and the election commission.

As every reading Bangladeshi knows, there are two major outstanding issues of contention between India and Bangladesh. One is the sharing of the Teesta water and the other is the land boundary agreement regarding the northern enclaves. In both these the maverick Mamata Banerjee has claimed a political stake for her state.

If she is to sell herself to Modi, it will be in exchange for a heavy influence on these two issues. If she is strong enough she may gain veto power over both issues. A weak Modi may in fact outsource his entire Bangladesh policy to Mamata Banerjee.

Mamata Banerjee is not anti-Bangladesh, and she is not anti-Muslim. But she is a populist and a tactician. She is a populist in the sense that she appeals unashamedly to Bengali sentiments, including the deep sense of deprivation and despair that prevails in a state once rich and powerful, but now economically in the backwaters while others surge forward.

So she promises to protect their interests – the interests of her state. These interests include, naturally one might say, “their water” and every inch of the motherland. These are issues that sit well with a large section of the electorate and deflect from her poor economic results.

Mamata Banerjee is also a tactician, an ambitious politician who will seek every opportunity to strengthen her hold on power and ensure its prolongation. She is not overly concerned about India’s relationship with Bangladesh or with the US, and she has never shown any interest in international issues. Her primary interest is her own position within India. If she can exploit nationalist (or regionalist) sentiments to enhance her position, there is little reason to believe that she will not do so, even if at the cost of the country’s international reputation.

She may be the chief minister of West Bengal and have a strong position there, but it is clear that she has national ambitions as well. To achieve such an ambition she may need emotional issues that will project her image.

Bangladesh will want a peaceful and mutually agreeable resolution of outstanding issues with its most important neighbour. This can be done if the neighbour feels confident and strong; strong enough to be a little generous. A reputation as the neighbourhood bully is not in India’s interest now.

Its ambition points to a much larger scene, and so India too will want a peaceful and mutually agreeable resolution of outstanding issues.

But a huge but weak neighbour is a liability. With its Bangladesh policy outsourced to Kolkata, India seen from Dhaka will be erratic, uncooperative, unpredictable, and prone to making risky allegations.

Bangladesh can best hope for no Modi. But as a second choice, it can hope for a strong Modi.

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