India’s election: Has Bangladesh no cause to worry?

Indian supporters and party workers of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)AFP

There’s hardly 24 hours left for the first phase of general elections in India, the world’s largest democracy if considered in numbers. Political pundits have, to the greater extent, taken it for granted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on the way to be elected for the third term. However, the manner in which rampant arrests are being been made against the opposition parties before the election, it seemed that perhaps prime Minister Modi’s BJP was not quite all that confident of a win and so has been doing anything to shove the opposition out of the scene. What other plausible reason could there be for Delhi’s chief minister himself be arrested, for opposition Congress’ bank account to be frozen and other such extreme measures?

So much drama is happening next door, yet there is not much discussion or debate about the matter here. We surely haven’t forgotten the palpable presence of Indian journalists and analysts (former diplomats) in Dhaka before our elections. In Delhi, even the government’s spokesperson was confronted with all sorts of questions at various times. But there is no news of any media representative from Dhaka going to India to collect news on the election there. At least no one’s reports have caught the eye. The correspondents of Prothom Alo and a few other newspapers there are sending in reports, but surely there should have been much more effort and initiative to closely observe the complex equations of the five-phase election covering 40 days in a land of 140 crore (1.4 billion) people, with the complex equations and interests of the divergently different states.

Our analysts also seem to have taken a vow of silence about what impact the possible results of Indian elections may have on Bangladesh. One explanation could be that no matter who comes to power in India, whether BJP or a Congress-led alliance, there will be no change in India’s attitude or policy towards Bangladesh. Whether there is a religious government installed in Delhi or a secular one, there is no change in dealings with Dhaka. Ironically, we have had to hear that changes here on Bangladesh will disrupt the stability and balance of the entire region.

BJP talks about protecting the rights of the religious minorities in neighbouring countries, but remains silent on the rights of the religious minorities within India. But Congress, in its manifesto, guarantees the protection of the rights of India’s religious minorities

On an intentional level, however, there is no dearth of interest, concern and worry in India’s elections. Guardian’s Simon Tisdall poses the thought, “A nagging question plagues world leaders wooing India: Whose side is Narendra Modi really on?” He points out that his image as a divinely anointed figure may win him victory, but at the price of democracy.

New York Times says that “Modi’s party doesn’t control the whole of India, but he is working on it.” In the southern states of India, known to be the most developed and innovative, officials are saying that if the trend of injustice continues, they will have to raise the issue of a separate nation.

Washington Posts writes, “In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election.”

The US and Germany faced India’s ire for speaking against harassment of the opposition leaders and in favour of equal opportunity for all during the election, but Delhi’s important ally Washington reiterated such sentiment. In the journal Foreign Policy, this apprehension was tangible.

Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor of the Indian portal Caravan, wrote in Foreign Affairs that BJP doesn’t simply want to win the election like most other parties. He wrote, its goal is not just to win elections and pass discrete policies: the party sees political power as a means to a much grander end. The BJP is a Hindu nationalist organisation that aims to completely restructure the Indian state as a Hindu nation. It wants to put Hinduism at the center of public life. It wants to make full Indian citizenship contingent on being Hindu. It has enacted laws that could strip Muslims of their citizenship.

Hartosh Singh Bal said that their main aim was to grab two thirds of the seats in both houses. He recalled how the founding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925 set the ball rolling on giving Hindutva the shape of political ideology. Prime Minister Modi’s political career also began with RSS.

Next year RSS will complete a hundred years and they intend to fulfill their 100 year endeavour to reach their political goal. ‘Why Bharat Matters, the book by the very smart Indian diplomat S Jaishankar, serves to confirm that Hartosh Singh Bal’s analysis is in no way farfetched. He speaks of reviving the supremacy of Indian civilisation.

The unfolding dramas in India, centering the election, and the new precedents being set, will have a long-lasting impact on all countries of the subcontinent. Take the election commission for instance. In the past, we would hear about the Indian election commission’s neutrality and authority that made the country’s election system a model to emulate. That commission has changed.

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Slipping through the loopholes in the Supreme Court order, a new law has been enacted where the government’s authority calls the shots in forming the election commission. However, the Supreme Court ruling concerning transparency of political party funds, certainly makes way for epoch-making reforms. There prevails debate and a legal battle over the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) there too.

Outside of all of this, do we have any discussions on the things being directly said about Bangladesh in the political statements or manifestos of the two main political camps there? The manifestos of both BJP and Congress talk about policies concerning the neighbours, and Bangladesh in particular.

BJP’s election pledge for a stable and strong India draws on the Upanishads for the basis of its foreign policy, focusing in international recognition of India. It speaks of friendly ties and working with neighbouring states from progress, prosperity, peace and security. But there is no mention of Modi’s famous “Neighbourhood First” policy. In the section on national security, it mentions the construction of 14 integrated checkposts in order to bolster border security, contending that this will make trade with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan easier along with the movement of the people. It mentions the commitment to the Citizenship Amendment Bill for the oppression religious minorities in neighbouring countries.

On the other hand, the Congress manifesto Nyay Patra highlights the Nehru era foreign policy principles of world peace and constraint. Congress has a separate section about neighbours where it speaks of reestablishing ties with Nepal and Bhutan. It speaks of furthering economic and cultural ties with Bangladesh.  But like BJP, Congress too makes no mention of resolving unresolved pending issues. It remains silent on the citizenship act for which BJP is being criticized and condemned.

An important difference in the manifestos of the two parties is the issue of rights of the religious minorities. BJP talks about protecting the rights of the religious minorities in neighbouring countries, but remains silent on the rights of the religious minorities within India. But Congress, in its manifesto, guarantees the protection of the rights of India’s religious minorities.             

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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