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WAITING FOR CHANGES ACROSS THE BORDER

For a change, politics in Bangladesh is not focused on the battling Begums but on something across the borders that might affect their fortunes. Parties and citizens are looking closely at prospects of a regime change in India as it heads towards the end of a long, staggered election. Most believe that the regime change there is looking somewhat inevitable. The stakes are high for those at either end of Bangladesh’s highly polarized political landscape — or so they believe. The country’s media are also busy, speculating aloud on the possible impact on bilateral relations if there is a regime change in Delhi and that shows in the hordes of journalists and television crews rushed off to India by Bangladesh print and TV moguls. None of India’s neighbours, Pakistan and China included, is watching the Indian elections more closely, if the media menu is anything to go by.

For the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and her ruling Awami League-led coalition, it would be ideal if the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance returns to power. Although the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has failed to get the land boundary agreement through the Indian parliamentary process and sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement in spite of having it ready, there is hope that a stronger Congress leader at the helm would push hard to get them through, should the UPA return to power. In any case, India’s firm support for Wajed, evident before and after the January 5 parliament polls in Bangladesh, will continue if the UPA is back. But with the UPA looking to be on its way out, Wajed and her colleagues are a worried lot. They would still be fine if the Indian elections do not produce a decisive verdict and a loose regional coalition — but one dependent on Congress and Left support — assumes power in Delhi. This prospect, voiced loudly by the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Prakash Karat, is Wajed’s second best option.

But beyond that, it looks like the devil and the deep sea. A regional coalition with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress as an influential constituent ruling Delhi is the last thing Wajed and the Awami League would wish to see. Banerjee is seen as the one single factor that has torpedoed the Teesta water-sharing pact and the passage of the land boundary agreement. During electioneering in North Bengal, the Bengal chief minister has harped on these themes again, determined to block any agreement on Teesta.

That has boosted Wajed’s opponents in Bangladesh, with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party launching a ‘Long March’ on Teesta in late April to highlight the Awami League’s failure to secure ‘national interest’ on the emotive water-sharing issue the importance of which cannot be undermined in what is still a predominantly agricultural country. So the BNP would hope that India is ruled by a loose regional coalition with Banerjee on the ship’s deck if not on the captain’s bridge. That may not get Bangladesh the share of Teesta waters it wants — but it will ruin Wajed’s credentials regarding the securing of crucial national interests after all that she has done to address India’s security and connectivity concerns. And that would provide the BNP, in disarray after failing to stop the last parliament elections with boycott and violence, a big issue to hit the streets with. The ‘Long March’, peaceful by the standards of violence witnessed during the BNP’s recent agitation, appeared to be an effort to test the waters. Wajed has put too many eggs in the Indian basket and if Banerjee continues to rock it, the eggs can begin to crack.

But what about the prospect that many seem to feel to be the most likely after all the hype about “Abki baar Modi sarkar”? The Awami League is circumspect because in 2001-2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government loudly proclaimed India has no favourites in Dhaka and the national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra, rushed to congratulate Khaleda Zia on taking over as prime minister. Narendra Modi’s threat to push back illegal migrants from Bangladesh also worries Wajed. If there is any pushback, as during the last Bharatiya Janata Party tenure in Delhi, it could lead to a sharp rise in border temperatures which could provoke attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh and create a law and order problem that Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamic radical groups could use to considerable advantage. Modi is also deeply unpopular with secular forces that back the Awami League because of his perceived role in the 2002 Gujarat riots — so the Awami League would also have a domestic problem about warming up to Modi beyond what is possible by protocol.

The BNP-Jamaat combine makes no secret that it wants the Congress out of power and a BJP-led coalition, if elected, to follow Vajpayee’s 2002 line of not playing favourites in Dhaka. Wajed, in contrast, would want Modi or any other BJP leader taking charge to continue the current Bangladesh policy of strong support to her regime and do, if possible, what Singh failed to do — break the ice on Teesta and the land boundary agreement.

Modi’s latest assurance that his anti-migrant tirade was a reflection of domestic concerns and should not be construed as hostility towards Bangladesh may have come as some reassurance to the Awami League. It was a clear enough hint that the Hindutva poster boy was raising the illegal migration issue to score brownie points in a hard-fought election but that he had no intention of rocking the boat with Dhaka.

For the Awami League, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Party veterans, so familiar with the Congress, are debating inconclusively over endless cups of tea about what the BJP might do this time on. There is a feeling that Modi will not overlook India’s security concerns, especially in the Northeast — and if he has that in mind, he will surely appreciate the Bangladesh crackdown on northeastern rebels and Islamic radicals. That would prompt him not to do anything that would undermine the present regime in Dhaka. And if Modi’s relations with Mamata Banerjee nosedive the way they have during the election campaign, the Awami League can hope against hope for some firm step to break the deadlock on issues bedevilling bilateral relations that would help them save face with their own voters.

Most important, a strong leader like Modi may not back off from opposing the United States of America’s line on Bangladesh and strongly back the present government to promote India’s interests. He has no great reason to oblige the US which denied him a visa for more than a decade and then clumsily rushed to break bread with him when he emerged as a front-runner in the Indian polls. That China and Russia, both wary of Islamic radicalism back home, are also backing the present regime may prompt Modi to largely continue the current policy.

The Indian high commissioner in Dhaka, Pankaj Saran, has publicly dismissed speculations that a regime change will lead to a change of policy towards Bangladesh. Saran, many feel, would not have gone on record to make such a public statement unless he had clearance from the top, meaning that India’s foreign policy establishment is reasonably sure that they can hold their own regarding the present Bangladesh policy regardless of who comes to power. Only a weak coalition of regional parties with Mamata Banerjee as an influential constituent can upset their calculation — and that of those leading the regime in Dhaka.