Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. (Photo: PTI) The average Indian might be dismissive when it comes to neighbouring Bangladesh, which is seen as a desperately poor country exporting hordes of illegal immigrants and nasty Islamist fundamentalists, but India’s foreign policy and security managers have a different view: Bangladesh to them is a key strategic partner and a friendly neighbour. Their continued support to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who was elected for a third consecutive term last week, is predicated on the view that without her New Delhi’s Dhaka policy will flounder and sink.
The problem is that Bangladesh’s political Opposition has been browbeaten, intimidated and broken. Prime Minister Hasina’s principal rival, former PM Begum Khaleda Zia, has been found guilty of corruption by the courts and is in jail. Although Begum Khaleda was an implacable foe of India, New Delhi had at one time agreed to support her and her son, Tariq Zia, but had been stabbed in the back and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was allowed a free run in the country.
That betrayal had come as a shock for Delhi and Begum Khaleda was never to be trusted again. New Delhi thus was left with a solitary card in that country: Sheikh Hasina. That, however, can’t be an entirely desirable situation. Too much power in the hands of Sheikh Hasina and her party has bred deep fissures and frustrations within the Bangladeshi society and polity. This is an inevitable consequence of virtual single-party rule and the absence of a functioning Opposition.
Bangladesh has unfortunately not produced any leader charismatic enough to challenge either of the two ladies at the top. This has served to further constrain New Delhi’s choices.
The Indian establishment nevertheless needs to be more sensitive of Bangladeshi sentiments and aspirations. The rapidly growing Bangladeshi middle class, which shapes the country’s polity and provides the political leadership, has mixed feelings about India.
This class resents the negative manner in which they are perceived and treated by Indians. They also believe that New Delhi enjoys inordinate influence in their country and that it influences all aspects of political life here. They are not far off the mark.
New Delhi sees no alternative to Sheikh Hasina, who has proved to be a dependable friend sensitive of Indian concerns. It is a partnership that has worked. But the question is for how long? Can a partnership with a single political leader and party endure indefinitely? The question is bound to gain urgency in the near future as Bangladesh’s importance is destined to rise. The first set of reasons has to do with economics, the second with geopolitics.
The stereotype of Bangladesh as a basket case is fast changing. Buoyed by a strong export economy and political stability, the country’s GDP growth has averaged six per cent annually since 2009. In nine years, the number of Bangladeshis living in extreme poverty has declined from about 19 per cent of the population to less than nine per cent, according to the World Bank.
The booming economy has attracted several lakh Indians who work in Bangladesh while several businesses, including garments units, are owned and operated by Indians. As Bangladesh’s economy booms, increased opportunities will open up and Indians will benefit only if good relations continue.
Else, China will step in as it already has in the strategic sphere. Today, Bangladesh is the second-largest importer of Chinese weapons systems after Pakistan. Dhaka has bought tanks, aircraft and submarines from China, a country, which Prime Minister Hasina believes is destined to play a bigger role in the region. She has eagerly sought Chinese investments in her country’s infrastructure. Of the many big-ticket projects being executed by China, the 6-km $3.7 billion bridge over the Padma river and the upgrading of Chittagong Port are the most talked about. While New Delhi and the capital’s media have mostly been focussed on strategic developments in the west, particularly in Pakistan where China operates the Gwadar deep sea port, Beijing is proceeding with even bigger and more significant strategic projects nearer home in the east.
Of particular concern are the Chinese strategic projects in Myanmar, which constitutes India’s geopolitical backyard. Less than two months ago, China and Myanmar signed an agreement to build the deep-sea port project in Kyaukpyu town. A Chinese consortium controlled by the government will build the $1.3 billion project (scaled down from $7.2 billion), with 70 per cent of the cash coming from China. A joint venture, where the Chinese will have an overwhelming share, will construct and operate the port.
Analysts have pointed out that this deep-sea port will be situated across the Bay of Bengal not far from a submarine base being developed by India near Visakhapatnam. With Kyaukpyu, China will have finished building a series of encircling ports around India, including Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka).
While Pakistan’s rising indebtedness and total military dependence on China have transferred effective economic policymaking from Islamabad to Beijing, a slow but similar process is underway in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka in recent years has seen the rise of a powerful pro-China lobby, of which former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a key figure. There can be no mistaking Beijing’s strategic intentions aimed at encircling and containing a rising India. Not surprisingly, Beijing has been working on Bangladesh as well.
A few years ago, China wanted to develop a deep-sea port at Sonadia, south of Chittagong. The terms were dangerous and were clearly part of Beijing’s “debt diplomacy”. Bangladesh would have taken the bait had it not been for the Japanese, who proposed a far better and safer project. The Japanese are now building a deep-sea port at Matarbari, near Cox’s Bazar, which will also have a huge 1200MW coal fired power plant, LNG terminal and other facilities. This project is touted as comprising “part of a broader project to turn the area into an industrial corridor, and an important trade gateway to the rest of Asia and beyond”. Japan is providing most of the funding at very favourable terms.
Indian interests in Bangladesh were thus rescued by Japan. Dhaka nevertheless is exploring options while the Chinese have shown no hesitation in bribing foreign politicians and officials to push through their agenda. It is time perhaps for India as well to broaden and diversify its political links within Bangladesh.