With the election campaign due to end on Friday morning, 48 hours before Bangladesh goes to polls on Sunday, the India factor — which has been part of the pre-election rhetoric in the past — is missing from campaign speeches.
What has helped is that India has not issued any statement, except for asking for “free and fair elections”, unlike many of its western counterparts — especially the Americans and Europeans.
“It’s very interesting to see that India did not get mentioned at all by the two prominent political parties during their election campaign,” an Indian diplomat in Dhaka told The Indian Express. There was some anti-India mention by one of the Islamist fringe groups, Hizbut Tahrir, but none of the leaders from either the BNP or Awami League talked up anti-India sentiments during the campaign.
In past elections, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Khaleda Zia, who is in jail on corruption charges, would
accuse the ruling Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, of being “pro-India”. “I think they realised that the BNP was not benefitting by alienating India,” the diplomat said.
Sabihuddin, a former diplomat and foreign affairs advisor to Khaleda Zia, told The Indian Express: “India is not a factor here this time. We should not be bothered whether BJP or Congress is in power in Delhi. Similarly, the Indian government should not bother whether Awami League or the BNP wins the elections.”
The BNP, which has traditionally led the charge against India in previous elections, nuanced its position, having burnt its fingers in 2014. As the BNP had boycotted the elections, Delhi did not push the Hasina-led Bangladesh government to hold re-elections — rather, it endorsed Hasina’s victory. That was a huge setback, which many within the BNP felt was a “blunder”.
What has worked in India’s favour is also the fact that it worked on the Bangladesh relationship quite seriously over the last few years. Some of the increased interaction at the highest level is telling. There were 10 meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, six video conferences and five telephone calls in the last five years — 19 development projects were inaugurated jointly by the two leaders, and they signed over 90 bilateral agreements in new areas like space, IT, electronics, cybersecurity, civil nuclear energy among others.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping wooing Bangladesh with $23 billion investment, New Delhi too upped its game and made sure India’s defence minister made the first visit to Bangladesh since 1971. Bangladesh imports 80 per cent of its defence equipment from China.
India’s development assistance to Bangladesh increased from $3 billion to $8 billion in three years. Bilateral trade has increased by 31.5 per cent from $7 billion to $9.3 billion.
Ashikur Rahman, a senior economist at the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, told The Indian Express: “I think Sheikh Hasina has navigated the geopolitical terrain quite skilfully. And, Awami League has a win-win partnership with all international stakeholders.”
But, what was the real game-changer was the ease of visa process for Bangladeshi nationals to India — it has increased three-fold in three years, from 5 lakh in 2015 to 14.5 lakh in 2018. “People in Bangladesh have become well-off, and their purchasing power has gone up. So, they travel to Kolkata for shopping or just pub-hopping during weekends,” an Indian diplomat said.
As elections are held amid violence and tension among political parties, New Delhi is keeping its fingers crossed on what it officially calls the “internal affairs” of Bangladesh. Except, that it will send three observers to watch the elections.