Is an equation being formulated around Bangladesh?

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during the 5th India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, in New Delhi on 10 November in 2023

The joint declaration released after fifth 2+2 ministerial level dialogue of Indian and US foreign and defence ministers, emphasised the comprehensive global strategic partnership between India and US to ensure global peace and security.

They also placed emphasis on the strong commitment of both the countries to maintain a free, open and inclusive environment in the India-Pacific Ocean through initiatives like ‘Quad.’ The key issues at the dialogue were security, defence partnership, cooperation in arms procurement and manufacturing, the regional and global situation, the Middle East, Ukraine, Afghanistan, terrorism, science and technology cooperation, and enhancing people-to-people ties between the two countries.

There was also talk of the two countries' commitment to democracy and human rights, but what was not there was the issue of Bangladesh and its forthcoming election.

India and the United States—both countries have their thoughts and ample concern about Bangladesh's forthcoming election. The position of the US is clear in this regard. They want a fair, peaceful and participatory election here and they are applying all sorts of pressure on the Bangladesh government to ensure that. It would not be correct to imagine they were doing so solely out of their love for democracy or to meet the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh. Geopolitical considerations are certainly behind their stance.

An Awami League government in Dhaka is always desirable for India and they hope that the government will be returned to power in 2024 through an engineered election. China also wants the same. Russia has tooo expressed support to the government

On the other hand, as a regional power, the Bangladesh election is a vital matter for India. It always plays a part in this regard. The rapidly expanding influence of China is a matter of concern for both India and the US. But that does not necessarily mean India’s plans are the same as the US plans.

India has more calculations as a regional power. Be that as it may, as an important high-level dialogue between these two powerhouses, it was expected that the Bangladesh election would feature in their discussions. Many were apprehensive to see nothing about this in the joint declaration.

We need to remember that the joint declaration published following the talks between the two countries includes only those things that have been agreed upon. It was evident right away that the Bangladesh issue was raised during the discussions between the four ministers of the two countries, but not consensus was reached on the matter. In a press conference in Delhi, India's foreign secretary told reporters that there were detailed discussions on various regional issues including Bangladesh.

The foreign secretary said, "We have clearly stated our position on Bangladesh." India respects the democratic process of Bangladesh. Elections in Bangladesh are the internal affair of the country. India has delivered the message to the US that it does not agree with the pressure that the US is creating for fair elections and that India's their position with the current government of Bangladesh has not changed. It is evident that India is pleased with the US role regarding the matter.

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However, it is not likely that the US will change its position due to India's displeasure. While the dialogue was going on in Delhi, US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a briefing at around the same time that the US administration's goal is to ensure a free and fair election in Bangladesh.

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Now the question is, what will the impact of India's clear position be in Bangladesh? Repression against the opposition greatly reduced after the US imposed sanctions imposed on RAB. BNP was also being allowed to hold rallies, though Awami League countered these rallies by holding 'peace rallies' to coincide with the BNP programmes, and police and party workers prevented people from gathering at the BNP rallies. Despite these provocations, the rallies ended fairly peacefully. But the whole picture changed during the grand rally of 28 October when the police used tear gas and sound grenades to disperse the rally that day. Detention and false cases resume in full throttle. A large part of the senior leadership of BNP is now in jail.

There is a lot of criticism about the government suddenly taking up this hard line. A possible reason could be the government had known in advance from behind the scenes, what the Indian Foreign Secretary had said at the press conference on 10 November. Many in Bangladesh assumed (which now appears to be wrong) that geopolitical allies the US and India would likely reach a consensus over the forthcoming elections, paving the way for a fair election. It was thought that since Bangladesh is visibly leaning more towards China, both the US and India would particularly want to change this situation. However, we recently saw how that despite the antagonism between China and India, they have had no problem uniting against the interests of Bangladesh on the Myanmar issue.

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This clear stance of India must have been a source of relief for the government. An Awami League government in Dhaka is always desirable for India and they hope that the government will be returned to power in 2024 through an engineered election. China also wants the same. Russia has tooo expressed support to the government.

The news report is of particular significance here. After 50 years, a fleet of three Russian warships entered Chittagong port. The ships arrived in Bangladesh after a joint exercise with the Myanmar Navy in the Andaman Sea on 7-9 November. Such courtesy visits by naval vessels of friendly countries are a regular occurrence. But after such a long time, this visit cannot be dismissed as a coincidence.

Is an equation being formulated centering Bangladesh, where arch-enemies China and India along with Russia, friends of both, are on one side while the US and its western allies are on the other side?

If that is true, this will be a unfortunate matter of much suffering for Bangladesh.

*Md Touhid Hossain is former foreign secretary

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Syed Faiz Ahmed

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