India’s close US ties gives it the bandwidth to make a bolder choice of allies within Bangladesh

There is a good reason why our parents warned us against friendships that make us unpopular and unaccepted. India has much to weigh on that count as Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks later this month on a visit to Bangladesh, the part of neighbourhood where he is both a friend and an enemy by association. Currently, more the latter, if one honestly gauges public opinion.

The Sheikh Hasina government, behind which India solidly stands, has been busy accruing anger of its people in the last couple of years despite some serious developmental work to its credit. An increasing number of Bangladeshis view it as a corrupt, arrogant and vindictive regime. It rode back to power in 2018 riding allegations of wanton rigging, stifling of dissent and forced disappearances.

It should strictly have been the neighbour’s problem if there were not a stubborn perception that Indian agencies covertly helped Hasina get back to power. Ironically, before the elections, Indian officials privately estimated Hasina government’s approval rating to be less than 20 percent.

India’s and Modi’s image started taking a hit in Bangladesh before the elections. The Hasina regime unleashed a harsh crackdown on an agitation in which students had come out on the streets protesting government apathy in traffic management. Photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for 107 days for speaking out. It was then that ire started being directed towards India, mainly on social media.

The election, widely seen as unfair, deepened popular anger.

But it was the night of 6 October, 2019 that drove dark ice into the heart of this relationship, more than leaders and diplomats on both sides may realise or admit.

Abrar Fahad, 21, a student of the top-grade Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), was dragged out of his hostel room by alleged activists of Chhatra League, the ruling Awami League’s student wing. He was then tortured and beaten with cricket stumps and bamboo sticks till he was dead in the wee hours of 7 October.

His crime? He had written a Facebook post criticising the Bangladesh government for bending over backwards to sign unhelpful and one-sided agreements with India.

Anti-India posts by Opposition BNP supporters or by the powerful Jamaat used to get limited traction on social media. But after the elections and especially after Abrar’s murder, the dam broke.

Jamaat’s IT cell Basher Kella, which keeps sprouting newer avatars, mirrors and IP addresses because of intense heat from the Hasina government, has unleashed a full-blown anti-India onslaught mainly from its UK handles. In the absence of any legitimate opposition, which the government has silenced, Jamaati social media handles get the people’s ear today.

The recent death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in custody — jailed for merely pointing to government corruption during the COVID pandemic — has made things worse. An Al Jazeera report has opened the box of outrage wider, exposing corrupt syndicates of top-ranking government and army officials.

In all this, China’s spectre silently grows in Dhaka. Officials at the topmost tier of Bangladesh’s national security are believed to be cosying up to China. While embers of environmental protests against the India-backed Rampal power plant in the Sunderbans smoulder on, China has sanctimoniously backed out of ‘dirty’ power projects in Bangladesh. It helps Beijing in two ways: to address global environmental concerns over its Belt and Road Initiative, and build a positive perception among the Bangladeshi people, contrasted with New Delhi’s stand on Rampal.

India’s play in Bangladesh is not easy. The choices are limited. It has to resist China’s voracious appetite for influence. And it has to deal with Bangladesh’s Islamist strain left over by the pro-Pakistan Razakars Militia, fanned by General Muhammad Ershad in the 1980s, and sustained by the Jamaat and groups like Hefazat-e-Islam.

India has mulled opening lines with the Opposition BNP. But a politically battered BNP has not shown much confidence in letting go of Jamaat and Pakistan’s coattails.

The next couple of years could be India’s chance to envision and encourage a leadership besides that of the two self-perpetuating ruling families, that of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Bangladesh has enough political talent outside this fetid duopoly. There are competent people with commitment and vision within those two parties but outside the families. There are prominent independent citizens too.

Joe Biden’s ascent to power brings to India some more providential elbow room in Bangladesh. Donald Trump couldn’t care less about a small country with an outsized population. Democrats have traditionally been a lot more engaged with Bangladesh and interested in upholding democracy there. The US’ involvement automatically works as a bulwark against China. And India’s close US ties gives it the bandwidth to make a bolder choice of allies within Bangladesh.

Among all of India’s challenges in Bangladesh, the most insidious is Bangladesh’s own insecurity in dealing with a much larger and ambitious nation which it had been carved out of through waves of bloodshed. For enemies of both the nations, it is easy to fan that insecurity into gurgling rage. Which is why Modi’s visit is crucial beyond the usual optics, selfies and hand-waving.

It is also time India gives Bangladesh something special, like a favourable Teesta water treaty. Or a deal that tells young Bangladeshis like Abrar that this is not an unequal friendship.