India-US chasm opens over Bangladesh

The 10th parliamentary election took place in Bangladesh on January 5 amid widespread boycotts, violence, vote rigging and without much fanfare. While the ruling Awami League claimed victory, it is hard to imagine a scenario where this election – where the fate of 154 parliament seats out of 300 were decided before a single vote was cast – could bring stability to this increasingly important country.

The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, came to power in 2008 with a two-thirds majority. While opportunities abounded for the Awami League to start a new era of politics in Bangladesh, it willfully wasted every chance to do so. The Awami League’s fall from grace over the past few years can be directly attributed to widespread corruption by cronies of Hasina, violence against opposition members and intolerance of any type of opposition views.

indiaUSbangladeshThe Awami League promised to nurture a democratic society with a progressive attitude towards governance. Buoyed by a strong mandate, the Awami League started to do the exact opposite from the get go.

During the Awami League’s reign, the stock market declined to a record low due to manipulation by corporate interests close to Hasina, leaving millions of people without their hard-earned money. High profile swindling cases by close associates of Hasina were much too common, and millions were squandered. While there are plenty of media outlets in Bangladesh, Hasina worked very hard to dismantle any exposing her government’s failures. Numerous news outlets were shut down and journalists were thrown into jail.

The people of Bangladesh took note of the widespread corruption, and the Awami League candidates were handily beaten in local elections. Hasina saw the writing on the wall and realized she would not come back to power under any free and fair election. Consequently, she amended the constitution to kill her own idea of a non-party caretaker government during votes, and amended the constitution to hold general elections under an interim government. This allowed Hasina to hold the election under her watch with plenty of options to rig the poll.

The recently concluded election took place despite calls to boycott from opposition parties. As mentioned earlier, the fate of 154 out of the 300 seats of the parliament was already decided as these seats each had only one candidate. The election for the rest came with reports of widespread vote rigging and stuffing of ballot boxes. The Daily New Age reported turnout to be less than 25% and it witnessed “small groups of people moving from booth to booth casting votes indiscriminately”.

Geopolitical chess game

Now questions can be raised as to what helps the Awami League ignore public opinion, world opinion and the minimum standards necessary to organize a free and fair election.

Brutal suppression of opposition parties makes sure any credible opposition to Hasina’s policies goes unprotested. Another very important factor behind the Awami League’s undemocratic activities can be traced to India’s undeniable support. India has always been an influential country in Bangladesh and it is using its cronies to make sure Bangladesh does not make a successful democratic transition.

Despite calls from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, China, Japan and other allies, India has been acting as a spoiler in Bangladesh by supporting Hasina’s government. India’s interest in supporting a corrupt and inept regime is multifold. Since coming to power, Hasina’s government has made sure every demand of the Indian establishment has been met with nothing given in return.

India has been granted access to Bangladeshi ports and road networks for easier access to northeastern states. The Bay of Bengal’s lucrative gas blocks have been awarded to Indian companies without any due process and without the participation of other world-renowned companies. India’s security establishment has been granted unparalleled access to Bangladesh. India’s products have flooded the Bangladeshi market despite India’s reluctance to allow Bangladeshi products into India. India maintains a trade surplus of over US3 billion due to the various trade barriers enacted against Bangladeshi business. [2]

Policies taken by Hasina’s government have also had a detrimental affect on Bangladesh’s trade relationship with other countries. Hasina’s government, under pressure from India, crafted a tax policy that increased the tax and surcharges levied against Japanese cars while decreasing the tax for substandard Indian cars. This was despite the fact that Japan has been one of Bangladesh’s most important development partners for over four decades. Japanese car companies are losing millions of dollars worth of sales in Bangladesh as a result of these actions.

EU nations also saw the negative impact of Hasina’s irrational pro-Indian policies. India’s Bharti Airtel has been granted unfair tax advantages over European counterparts such Telenor-owned Grameen phone. Under the support of Hasina’s administration, Bharti has been pushing hard to take away the market share from the established telecom operators like Telenor. There are quite a few other examples of these kinds of unfair trade policies that not only hurt Bangladesh’s important development partners, but also prevent Bangladesh from fulfilling her true potential.

While Hasina’s government has been more than liberal in dishing out favors to the Indian government, India failed to reciprocate. Indian border security forces still kill hundreds of unarmed civilians along the border every year. Land exchange treaties signed between the two countries in 1974 are yet to be implemented and ratified by India.

India’s unilateral move to build dams in upstream rivers will create horrific consequences in Bangladesh. India has far failed to pay heed to any of these unresolved legitimate concerns of Bangladesh. And as long as Hasina is in power, by hook or crook, India seems to be happy with the outcome. India does not seem to have any interest in supporting the democratic process in Bangladesh. Neither does it concern itself over blatant human-right violations in Bangladesh by Hasina’s government.

To maintain this unnatural and one-sided balance of power between these two nations, India has been working overtime to prop up Hasina’s unpopular government. The opposition parties in Bangladesh are not so inclined to bow down to Indian pressure and India’s foreign policy establishment believes the end of Hasina’s tenure would mean a termination of this one-sided relationship.

India’s unprecedented interference in Bangladeshi internal affairs has soured the mood of the people in Bangladesh. Recently, Indian Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh visited Bangladesh to openly lobby political parties to join the sham election. These undemocratic activities go against the very fabric of a free society and need closer attention from the outside world.

Up until now, the US and other EU nations coordinated their Bangladesh policies with India. Over the past few years a chasm has grown between India and the US (and the EU to some extent). Other than India, all other countries would like to see a democratic transition in Bangladesh where elections reflect the true choice of the people of Bangladesh. India’s unconditional support for a brutal undemocratic regime in Bangladesh is influencing Western countries, especially the US, to rethink their Bangladesh policy seen through the prism of India.

A recent diplomatic snafu over the arrest of an Indian diplomat and subsequent retaliation from Delhi illustrate that policymakers from the US and India do not always see eye to eye. And that is not uncommon among nations. The point is that India will always pursue her interest regardless of what that means for the US.

India has proven that over and over again by granting nuclear contracts to countries other than the US, not procuring fighter jets from US companies, trying to create Afghanistan as the battlefront against Pakistan and thus fostering instability (as Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has said). It would be foolish to think US policymakers are not seeing the same signs. It is high time the US pursued a foreign policy in South Asia that satisfies the needs of the US and Bangladesh, not India’s.

Bangladesh has become a very strategically important nation in the region in recent years. Sitting between South and Southeast Asia, it can be a bridge between these two fast growing regions. Bangladesh plays a prominent role in both the US and China’s version of the new Asian Super-highway/trade route that will connect Asian countries with an aim to boost trade and improve interconnectivity.

Bangladesh’s access to the Bay of Bengal is another important factor for the US, and others. Access to the Bay of Bengal and consequently to the Indian ocean is of significant strategic importance.

Bangladesh already has a long standing strategic relationship with the US. Bangladesh is one of the largest contributors of UN peacekeeping forces. Bangladeshi non-government organizations like BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) and the Grameen Foundation are also using their expertise and coordinating with the US to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan.

BRAC now employs over 3,400 people across Afghanistan and operates under five programs covering microfinance, health, education, capacity building and training and solidarity. Bangladesh also showed great acumen in aligning with the US and her gulf allies in organizations such as the Organizations of Islamic Cooperation on various important matters.

As a result of these multifaceted strategic partnerships between the US and Bangladesh, the US wants to see a democratic Bangladesh where democratic institutions thrive and prosper. That pits US policies directly against India’s policy of supporting the undemocratic regime of Hasina.

The people of Bangladesh already have a favorable opinion of the US when it comes to promoting economic development and supporting democracy in Bangladesh. The US is also the largest market for Bangladesh’s main export vehicle – readymade garments.

From Bangladesh’s perspective, a more intertwined strategic partnership between Bangladesh and the US can help both countries immensely. Under the current US administration, the US is pivoting towards Asia and as increasing involvement with various regional players. Bangladesh can play an important role in helping US policy by connecting South Asia with Myanmar and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Bangladesh can also gain significant advantage by letting US oil giants explore energy in the Bay of Bengal. In return, the US navy can help shore up naval security there.

Bangladesh also promises a very attractive market for the US market and the abundance of skilled labor in Bangladesh can be a boon for US businesses. Due to sustained growth over the past few years, Bangladesh has experienced a considerable boost in the size of the middle class.

Middle and upper income families in Bangladesh are now spending billions of dollars to accommodate their lifestyle and are buying products to maintain such way of life. An estimated $6 billion worth of trade took place during the month of Ramadan last year. That is not a paltry sum by any account.

In order to utilize the growing economic-strategic stature and keep India’s negative destructive influence at bay, Bangladesh should promote a closer partnership with US and EU. While China can also be a potential partner, its unwillingness to voice concern against India’s interference in Bangladesh is a significant barrier. Until India changes it course and foster a relationship with people of Bangladesh rather than just a segment of the society, Bangladesh should examine how the intensity of relationships between US and Bangladesh can be enhanced.

Bangladesh would benefit greatly from a deepening partnership, both strategically and economically. The US is already contributing greatly to the advancement of Bangladesh. Closer coordination and partnership between these two countries can cement the relationship even further and help navigate the challenges ahead.

By Hasan Mir, an American-Bangladeshi IT Professional from Minnesota (Copyright 2014 Hasan Mir)

Courtesy: The Asia Times Online feature.