[op-ed snap] The Centre moves East

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Mains Paper 2: IR| India and its neighborhood- relations

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: SAARC, BIMSTEC, BCIM.

Mains level: The newscard discusses impact of B’desh election result on the sub-continent, in a brief manner.


Context

  • Sheikh Hasina’s party, which leads the Grand Alliance, has romped back to power for an unprecedented fourth term in office.
  • The general election has given the Grand Alliance, or, more specifically, the Awami League, a huge majority in the Jatiyo Sangshad, the country’s Parliament, to a point where no effective Opposition is in sight.

Background

What is India’s interest in the Bangladesh elections? Given India was an active player in the birth of this 47-year-old nation, Delhi has always looked out for Dhaka.

For India, Bangladesh is important for numerous reasons.

  1. Connectivity
  • Perhaps on top of the list is connectivity between India’s mainland and the crucial northeast, which is part of India’s “Look East” Policy.
  • The only connection between India’s mainland and the northeast was the Chicken’s Neck – a narrow strip of land that has always been a huge security concern. Snap the chicken’s neck and a huge part of the country is cut off.
  • India and Bangladesh have signed several pacts, so India can actually send goods and passengers over land across Bangladesh, connecting Bengal to Tripura.
  • Chittagong port, too, is now open to Indian vessels and will ease supply of goods, meaning India is much more connected to the northeast than before.
  1. Security
  • The other part of ensuring the security of the northeast is by ensuring that Bangladesh does not become a shelter for its insurgents.
  • It had played a sterling role, flushing out northeastern terrorists from Bangladesh and even handing over the once-dreaded ULFA terrorist Anup Chetia to India.
  • The other big security concern for India is that Bangladesh should not turn into the frontline of Islamic terror in the southeast — something that looked possible in the early 2000s when the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, or the JMB, ruled the roost and its leaders like Bangla Bhai terrorised not just Bangladesh but India too. Bangladesh turned into a launchpad for Islamic terror activities in India.
  • It was Sheikh Hasina who proactively cracked down on groups like the JMB that had a free-run in the previous regime of Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
  • India’s relationship with Bangladesh is also linked to its relationship with China. India does not want Bangladesh to become a pearl in China’s “String of Pearls” strategy to hem in India by using its neighbours.
  • Given Bangladesh’s GDP and economic growth, the Indian industry is taking a serious interest in investing in the country. Sheikh Hasina has helmed an economic upswing in the country which the industry hopes will continue.

Significance of this election

  • First, for the first time in a decade, all the political parties took part in the election (the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or the BNP, boycotted the 2014 election). In other words, this time voting was based on an inclusive election.
  • Second, this was the first time a general election was held under a political governmentsince the fall of the Hussain Muhammad Ershad military regime in 1990.
  • The earlier stipulation of elections being supervised by a caretaker administration.
  • It stuck to the justified position that a government elected for five years cannot morally and logicallyhand over power to an unelected administration for three months before a new elected government comes into office.

Bangladesh transformation under the critical leadership of Sheikh Hasina

  • Bangladesh has emerged as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its per capita income has doubled over the last decade. It is all set to leave the category of “least developed countries”.
  • Hasina’s ambition is to accelerate the annual economic growth rate from the current 7 per cent to nearly 10 per cent by the time Bangladesh celebrates its 50th birthday in 2021.

What does this economic transformation of Bangladesh mean for the Subcontinent as a whole?

  1. Economic model
  • It has begun to change the economic hierarchy in the region, by displacing Pakistan in the second spot.
  • The per capita income and aggregate GDP of Bangladesh are $1800 and $275 bn respectively, is now larger than that of Pakistan’s at about $1600 and $310 bn.
  • Thus, there is urging in Islamabad to adopt the “Bangladesh model” — where the focus is on economic development rather than political adventurism and promoting religious moderation instead of extremism.
  1. Shift in centre of gravity
  • It alters the balance within South Asia by tilting the region’s economic centre of gravity towards the east.
  • The economic advancement of Bangladesh helps lift up the whole of the eastern Subcontinent, including India’s Northeast as well as Bhutan and Nepal.
  • It had chosen the path of regional cooperation, i.e. helped found the SAARC in the mid-1980s, re-vitalisation of the BIMSTEC forum.
  • Bangladesh is also critical for the success of Beijing’s plans to integrate its Yunnan province with Myanmar, Bangladesh and eastern India.
  1. Peaceful resolution of territorial issues
  • Bangladesh have peacefully resolved its maritime territorial issues with India and Burma through arbitration.
  • That opens up significant room for maritime economic and security cooperation within the Bay of Bengal. That in turn will deepen the integration between eastern Subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

Maintaining Balance in the Foreign Policy

  1. In the field of foreign affairs, the government has based its approach to the outside world on pragmatism, thus successfully preserving a balance in Bangladesh’s relations with India, China and Russia.
  2. The government has also found appreciation from the international communityin its treatment of the Rohingya refugees nearly 1 million refugees have found shelter in Bangladesh following their expulsion from Myanmar.
  3. It has gone out of its way to ensure the safety of the refugees even as it tries, rather fitfully, to strike a deal with Myanmar on the return of the Rohingya.
  4. For China, the most desirable long-term outcome would be to manage its relations with Dhaka in such a manner that Indian anxieties are assuaged and a regional win-win framework linking China-Bangladesh-India is a possibility.

Way forward

  1. The current challenges for Hasina are to consolidate her domestic agenda and balance her country’s relations with India and China the neighboring giants.
  2. While India enabled the creation of Bangladesh, it is a complex relationshipwith a number of areas of discord, including illegal immigration.
  3. In the next five years, it will be the government’s responsibilityto go beyond an emphasis on economic progress to ensure rule of law and democracy, in the form of a properly functional Parliament, a free judiciary, and an efficient executive.
  4. The rise of Bangladesh and the expanding regional cooperation centred around it allows us to imagine a positive future for the Eastern subcontinent and its integration with the dynamic East Asian region.

With inputs from: NDTV

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Bangladesh
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