Economic and political question of a boycott

Indian truck at Banglabandha border.Prothom Alo

On 5 January this year, the CEO of the world’s top fast food chain McDonalds, Chris Kempczinski, suddenly make an open admission that his company had faced significant losses in the Middle East and elsewhere because of the Israeli offensive in Gaza. The world’s top coffee chain Starbucks also admitted to similar losses. It is because the Israeli branches of these two American companies expressed their solidarity with the Israeli army in its anti-Hamas aggression, that a call was made to boycott their products.

Actually there has been a global movement in place since 2005 against Israeli products and services. Back then, too, the boycott had stemmed from Israel’s attacks and occupation. The movement was dubbed BDS – Boycott, Divest, Sanction. This movement spread from the Middle East and certain Muslim majority countries to America and Europe too. Not only were Israeli products boycotted, but there was also tremendous response to the call to withdraw investment in Israeli companies and business. A number of universities and research institutes also decided not to work with any Israeli institution.

The law pertaining to the declaration of statement of origin of products was extremely useful for the BDS movement. Items produced on Israel-occupied Palestinian soil, such as Medjool dates, have mention of where these are produced. So the common consumer can easily identify this and get the choice to boycott.

Israel is beginning to feel the impact of the BDS movement just as the white rulers of South Africa did about the international boycott during the apartheid. They began their lobbying and have even succeeded in prohibiting the boycott movement in certain areas. While they haven’t managed to get the US enact such a law on a national level, in 30 or more states this movement has been banned.

The reason that the matter of political and commercial impact of a boycott has been raised is because of the debate that has emerged in our politics over the boycott issue. After the election, a significant number of social media influencers were irate with the influential neighbour India’s role in the election, and launched an ‘India Out; campaign. They are not very powerful and there is no evidence of their being ardent supporters of any political party. The common thread that joins all these influencers scattered around the country and outside, is that they are anti-government.

Around 16 months before the election on 18 August 2022, the foreign minister at the time AK Abdul Momen had said in Chittagong that he had requested India to do everything that was needed to be done to keep Sheikh Hasina in power

The reason why these anti-government elements have taken up this stance against India has been well clarified in the words of Awami League’s general secretary, road transport and bridges  minister Obaidul Quader. After a meeting with the Indian high commissioner Pranay Verma on 28 March, he told the media, “Certain opposition parties in this country wanted to join hands with certain foreign states and create instability over here. They wanted to disrupt the election, but India stood by our side at the time. We must acknowledge that.”

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We may recall that around 16 months before the election on 18 August 2022, the foreign minister at the time AK Abdul Momen had said in Chittagong that he had requested India to do everything that was needed to be done to keep Sheikh Hasina in power. After Awami League clinched 98 per cent of the seats in their own name and in the name of others in the one-sided election boycotted by the anti-government parties, the Indian government was the first to give it recognition.

It has not been learnt as yet as to whether any political party has officially given support to these activists of the cyber world, but certain leaders of the major opposition party BNP have openly expressed their support. It may be noted here that long before this support for the boycott expressed by a handful of leaders, the India media wrote profusely on the topic and said BNP were those waging the movement. After that, ruling Awami League ministers and leaders also began slamming BNP as instigators of the movement. So actually the Indian media and our ruling party must be given credit to a great extent for bringing a fringe movement to the mainstream.

While there have been reports that BNP is discussing the matter, the reason why the blame is being placed on them before they have even taken any clear stand, could be  - 1. To push BNP into the movement, and 2. To create pressure through these campaigns in advance so that BNP does not join the movement. And BNP is hardly likely to take any decision in this regard, weighing the odds in international politics.

Some say that the movement to boycott Indian goods is not realistic. They argue that since we can’t change our neighbor even if we want, it is best to avoid adversity. It is a political question. Then again, there are those who say this is not possible on economic grounds because our commercial dependence on India is too high. From food grain to industrial raw material, there is nothing that we don’t bring from India. That is true, but the counter argument is that historical records of bilateral trade indicate that when the dependence was not so high, there had been no crisis and so if Indian goods do not enter, there will be no crisis now either. They say, when there is a shortfall in products like rice or onions, India slaps a ban of exports of these products and these are then procured from alternative markets.

Figures show over the 15 years bilateral trade and economic relations have increased multiple times both in the government and private sector. In 2008, according to official records, Bangladesh’s imports totaled USD 2 billion (USD 200 crore), which now stands at USD 16 billion (USD 1600 crore) and Bangladesh is now India’s  fourth top export market. Then, the official import of power, fuel oil and liquefied gas has shot up from almost nil to over a billion dollars. Then there is the border ‘haat’ (market), the commercial value of  which is estimated to be around a billion dollars, according the Observer Research Foundation.

Outside of these bilateral trade figures, there is the propensity for Bangladeshis to go to India for medical treatment and travel. According to the 2016 study run by the Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management, the number of Bangladeshis travelling to India stood at 1.38 million (13 lakh 80 thousand), 77 per cent of whom have gone on tourist visas and 7.3 per cent on medical visas. Then these Bangladeshis spend 52,000 rupees per head, meaning that over a billion dollars are spent. Even though the latest figures are not known, Indian officials records show that Bangladeshis top the list of foreign travelers in India.

Then again, from the secondary level to higher studies, thousands of students go to study in India every year. Huge amounts of dollars are spent on their education, stay and other areas. There are no reliable records of how much is spent in this sector. India’s cultural export is a relative new addition and now Bollywood movies are released in Bangladesh on the same day as in Mumbai and Delhi.

It is clear in the case of boycott at an international level that no matter how limited the economic impact may be, the political impacts are much more far reaching. This has been because of active and organised initiatives to run a movement politically. Trade unions, teachers and student unions and pro-peace anti-war non-government organisation coordinate and build up the movement on a planned organisational framework.

The involvement of any political party, professional group, student organisation or civic organisation in the anti-Indian movement in Bangladesh is still absent. In terms of transactions, it may be difficult to boycott India goods because of the habit developed over one and a half decade, but it cannot be said that this is impossible for political reasons. The question is, will the anger generated because of India’s role in the election actually take the shape of a political movement?

* 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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