Bangladesh: Challenges & Choices in External Environs

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A Partial View of Rayerbazar Boddhobhumi public domain work in Bangladesh. Bangladesh Military Museum 3.7 inch howitzer. Public domain work of the US Government and 1971 Instrument of Surrender. Photo: Collected

A good working definition of a State’s foreign policy would be the sum-total of its external interactions including its efforts at influencing their outcomes through policy -packages and efforts at their implementation. A nation’s behaviour pattern often predates the Statehood or the current civic structure. It would be important to bear these points in mind in attempting a study of how Bangladesh relates to the region, as well as to the rest of the world.

Today’s Bangladeshis are yesterday’s East Bengalis, with two key attributes, relevant earlier, and now. It is, one, their Muslimness and, the other, their Bengaliness. What today comprises Bangladesh underwent three partitions in recent times , each with significant contribution to the nation-building process of the Bangladeshis: Partition Mark 1 in 1905 when their incipient national consciousness was given a territorial content for the first time with the creation of the single Muslim majority province of East Bengal and Assam: Partition Mark 2 in 1947 when Bengal was divided once again and the Muslim majority east was joined with other Muslim majority provinces in the subcontinent’s north west to create Pakistan: and Partition Mark 3 in 1971 when following exploitation by the Western Wing, the Eastern-wing’s aspirations found fruition in full sovereignty. Throughout there was a consistency in the peoples’ behaviour. Throughout recent history, they sought alliances within subcontinent when either one or the other of the two attributes was felt to be threatened. It was akin to a swinging movement of a pendulum within a three- body system, the three bodies being Muslim India, Hindu India and West Bengali Hindus.

The behaviour- pattern tended to continue after the nascence of the State in 1971. Independence came major support from India, and Bangladesh felt obligated. But soon the traditional behaviour- pattern resurrected. There was one difference though. It was no -longer an interplay within a three- body system. This was because Bangladesh was now sovereign and could relate to international state players. it would henceforth be an interplay within, not a three-body, but a multibody system. Bangladesh was, geographically and psychologically, largely India-locked. The theoretical underpinning of its external policy was always the desire to live in concord with but distinct from the larger and stronger neighbour. The concord was necessary because India was too powerful. The distinction was essential in order to underscore its separate sovereign existence. This is no different from other smaller and weaker countries vis-à-vis a larger and stronger neighbour anywhere else. A notable instance is Finland’s relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.

A logical strategy would be to try to reduce the power-gap with India by involving itself in a web of extra-regional linages, at least to the extent possible. One may argue that polices are not always logical. That may be so. But there is a mathematical law governing, just as in the sciences, that in international relations also similar causes ultimately would produce similar effects. During the Cold War Pakistan tried to overcome the power gap with India by embracing western defence alliances. The idea behind joining CENTO and SEATO was not to be party to America’s fight against the Soviets and China but to balance power against India. Indeed, with China Pakistan succeeded in forging close ties, which helped it to provide Washington a conduit to Beijing. That sowed the seeds of Pakistan’s China policy which has survived to this day.

Bangladesh’s normal predilections would also have been to turn to the US and Europe, with whom there was greater economic, social, ideological, emotional and intellectual links of the powerful elite, Dhaka’s New Bhadralok, in some ways a successor to the Kolkata Bhadralok during the period of the British Raj. But Bangladesh had little strategic value for the West. There are analysts who have argued that the US actually ran its Bangladesh policy vide India. On the other hand, its strategic value to China was greater, given China’s India policy. As Chinese economic and military clout began to grow exponentially, it succeeded in creating a supportive constituency within the New Bhadralok, both civil and military. China was now racing to superpower equivalence with the US. That is its Zhung Guomeng( China-Dream), in the articulated vision of Xi Jinping.

There is already taking place in the global arena what the American physicist-philosopher Robert Kuhn called ä paradigm-shift. In this case it was the movement from a unipolar to a bipolar world of competition between the US and China. Today all China’s bilateral relations with other countries are but clogs in the wheel of its US policy. Any country that helps its aspiration is a friend. Any seen impeding, like India, Japan or Australia are seen as but irritants. For Bangladesh also China is the only Superpower or P 5 (permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) Friend it can have. This fact buttresses a sense of security. But ultimately will soon be in altogether in another League. It may not be just a counterpoise to India. Also, worth noting is that China’s external policy is driven by a complex interrelationship of elements within the Communist party, and layers within layers. of. Regional factors could become insufficient to influence it significantly.

All this implies that Indo-centrism will remain key to our external policy. This must be carefully calibrated because India is emerging as a system in itself that is ever changing and becoming a very complicated entity. It is necessary to dive a bit deeper into India’s domestic politics to illustrate this point.The notion or the idea of Indian Federalism is assuming varied perceptions. The BImaru States (the expression is owed to the acronym of the States vin question) of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, though the poorest parts of India, call the political shots in the Federation. There are obvious risks when the less developed segment of a Union exercises preponderant power over the more developed. The Luxman- Rekha of the Ramayana may become more of a reality than a myth. The Narendra Modi and Amit Shah driven atavistic and non-inclusive Hindutva policies of the threatens to exacerbate the divided between Hindus and Muslims. If the ruling party is confronted with severe political or economic challenges, it may be tempted to follow the communal path to populism to shore-up its own base like Trump’s America. This would create a structural problem for any positive relations with the region’s Muslim majority States.

 Also, West Bengal’s rejection of BJP’s non-secular ideology in the recent polls signals a modicum of inchoate sub-nationalism. While this should not be exaggerated, it may have important implications for India’s ‘Eastern Politics’, as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress seeks to pivot to Tripura as well. The point is that the Indian States surrounding Bangladesh can assume political character very different from that of New Delhi. This will need to be taken into account as Bangladesh interacts with India. In many ways for Dhaka, New Delhi can be, hanooz dur ast, yet very far.

For these reasons the run-up to the Indian general elections, due to take place before May 2024 will need close watching. The current prognosis is that in a straight contest between the two All-India Parties, the Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, the BJP is likely to win hands down. Modi remains unrivalled in the All-India pollical spectrum, and a Gandhi family led Congress is unlikely to take him down, less so three years down the line when the travails of the pandemic may be forgotten. But should the regional parties (backed but not led by the Congress) rally around a single candidate, it could give the BJP a tough battle. The current legislative arithmetic points to that. Out of the 543 constituencies of the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Parliament) the regional parties (and the Congress) either hold the seats or are the main opposition in al least 313, which should any future Grand Alliance or Mahagatbandhan more than a fair chance.

A major problem is that a potential alliance such as this would have too many prime ministerial candidates (Mamata Banerjee, Akilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar, MK Stalin, to name a few). It is believed that the famous poll- strategist Prasant Kishore will be advising them to help narrow down to a single candidate also develop a winning plan. The candidate need not be an All -Indian, but someone all the regional parties will agree to back. Should such a coalition triumph, then the effect would, at least in practice if not in theory, be a loosened Federation, more like a Union with more powers devolved to, or exercised by, the constituent States. Obviously for an immediate neighbour like Bangladesh, this would be fraught with implications and would need to be taken into account.

At all times we must bear in mind that in politics as in physics, the thesis of the Greek Philosopher Heracleitus holds, that all matter is in a state of constant flux ,and we never step into the same river twice. The ever-shifting dynamics of domestic politics, both China and India, introduce a dynamism in our external environment. These are not forces controlled by us, but have deep implications for the challenges we confront and choices we make. Consequently, in Bangladesh, in government and in thinktanks, our perceptions and policies in pursuit of national self-interest must be constantly readjusted and recalibrated. To be able to do this, it would be of existential importance for us to have knowledge, awareness and understanding of the on-going processes in our broader region.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg

  • Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP)
  • Trinamul Congress
  • New Bhadralok
  • Kolkata Bhadralok
  • Hindu India
  • Muslim India
  • Muslimness
  • Bangladesh: Challenges Choices in External Environs
  • Mamata Banerjee
  • Xi Jinping
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi

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