Tuesday, February 11, 2014

India Losing Clout in South Asia

Things have been bad enough for India in Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and we now face the prospect of our relations with Bangladesh going down the tube in the coming months.
After having a friendly government preside over a stable neighbour in the last five years, we are now confronted with the prospect of violence and anarchy in a country with which we share a 4000-km border.
The cause of this alarming development is not too difficult to find - the continuing and debilitating quarrel between the two Begums of Bangladesh - Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her predecessor, Khaleda Zia, the chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Jamaat activists set fire to an Awami League office in Bangladesh on an election day that was marred by violence
Jamaat activists set fire to an Awami League office in Bangladesh on an election day that was marred by violence


The occasion, too, has a sense of déjà vu. With national elections scheduled in January 2014, Begum Khaleda had demanded that they take place under the aegis of a caretaker government, and not the incumbent Awami League dispensation headed by her great rival.
Not surprisingly, Sheikh Hasina refused, just as Khaleda Zia had done in 2006 when she was prime minister. It had taken two years of agitation and strife to gain her commitment to hold the polls under the aegis of a caretaker government and the Awami League alliance had won by a landslide - 263 seats out of 300.
We are now probably headed to the same place with the numbers reversed in favour of the BNP. The international community has uniformly denounced the January 5 elections which saw a voter turnout of about 30 per cent against the 83 per cent who voted in 2008.
As many as 153 out of the 300 seats were won uncontested by the Awami League alliance which secured a three-fourths majority. In the wake of domestic protests and international condemnation, Sheikh Hasina has more or less conceded that she will have to undo the elections.
The question is of timing. The longer the violence and anarchy plays out, the worse it will be for Bangladesh.
A re-election, which will almost certainly see the victory of the BNP, is bad news for India. But New Delhi can only blame itself for its predicament. It did little to show its appreciation for the friendly government in Dhaka - it was neither able to push the Teesta water-sharing accord, nor the border agreement.
Given the binary nature of Bangladeshi politics, it was bad strategy for New Delhi to be seen as Sheikh Hasina's benefactor. This may have been a reality in the past, but in the last five years, at least, New Delhi needed to have moved to a stance that would protect Indian interests, regardless of who headed the government.

People gather in front of a burnt and vandalised house after Bangladesh Jamaat-E-Islami activists attacked a Hindu village in Jessore
People gather in front of a burnt and vandalised house after Bangladesh Jamaat-E-Islami activists attacked a Hindu village in Jessore


The events in Bangladesh have also brought out an uncharacteristic rift between New Delhi and Washington DC. In the past year, the Americans have been warning against the holding of elections in a climate of violence, while India has made it clear that all its eggs are in Sheikh Hasina's basket.
Had the two countries put forward a united stand on the elections, perhaps things would not have come to this pass. On Monday, the United States issued a statement that categorically called on the Awami League government to fix the situation.
In Washington DC, Marie Harf, the official spokesperson, denounced the violence and said: "We believe Bangladesh still has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to democracy by organising free and fair elections that are credible in the eyes of the Bangladeshi people."
The American statement was in sharp contrast to the Indian official spokesperson's comment on the election, which was also delivered on Monday. In his daily briefing, the official spokesman said that the elections in Bangladesh were a "constitutional requirement" and that it was for the people of the country to "decide their own future and choose their representatives in a manner that responds to their aspirations."
Ignoring the issue of the legitimacy of the elections, the spokesperson said that "violence cannot and should not determine the way forward." This was not a blanket endorsement of Sheikh, but it was close enough, given the universal criticism she has otherwise faced.
India's predicament is manifest. Sheikh Hasina is one of the few friends we have in the South Asian region. In 2013, we have had trouble-prone relations with Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives; and ties with our adversaries Pakistan and China remain unchanged.
But in the last five years, with Sheikh Hasina as prime minister, relations between India and Bangladesh were warm and friendly. She cracked down on the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) sheltering in Bangladesh, as well as on domestic Islamists who were used by the ISI for anti-Indian activity.
Moreover, stable Bangladesh enjoyed a handsome six per cent rate of growth.


Sheikh Hasina's added virtue was that she took on the Jamaat-e-Islami and had it on the run. Equally important, the Awami League's control of the government provided New Delhi some comfort with regard to the advancing Chinese influence in the region, even though India was not able to reward her sufficiently.
On the other hand, Khaleda Zia and her BNP are allied to the Jamaat which is virulently anti-Indian. Begum Khaleda's own attitude towards India cannot but be deeply skewed by the perceived closeness between India and Sheikh Hasina.
As far as India is concerned, the issue of Bangladesh cannot be handled by a lame-duck government in New Delhi.
But beyond personalities and politics, there is one basic question we need to ask ourselves: Why even 66 years after independence, is New Delhi's influence in its region shrinking instead of expanding?
Mail Today January 7, 2014

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