“India will back Sheikh Hasina from the top”

Bangladesh-India relations expert Avinash Paliwal talks about India’s “leverage” over Awami League politicians; how India’s national interests trump democracy in Bangladesh; and, Tarique Rahman’s “black swan” event.

“India will back Sheikh Hasina from the top”

On “election” day in Bangladesh it is worth noting that today would not be happening without the Indian government’s substantial support for the Awami League.

“India is the most important external actor in Bangladesh politics, and it is likely to continue,” said Avinash Paliwal , a reader in International Relations at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who specialises in India-Bangladesh relations. “India will back Sheikh Hasina from the top.”

Paliwal, who is probably one of the most informed academics or commentators currently writing on Bangladesh-India relations and is publishing a book, India’s Near East, later in this year, was speaking to me six weeks ago in mid-November 2023.

India’s support for, and influence on, the Awami League
Paliwal explained that India has extraordinary influence within Bangladesh politics, “There is a clear consensus in the Indian political ecosystem to support the Awami League. India has diplomatic and political capital within the Awami League and in sections of the armed forces. It has favourites in the army and in the Awami League. They have favourite individuals and [India] has leverage over them.”

He said that these Bangladesh politicians and senior officials “are people who ask for Indian advice about decisions.”

“In Awami League, people lobby to get Indian support. That is known in the army, police, and intelligence services and within the Awami League. This is a known and an accepted fact. It is just not articulated.”

He went on to say, “The Awami League has given India that pride of place. It is the Awami League who is giving India a berth within Bangladesh rather than India desiring it.”

India’s interests in Bangladesh
The SOAS academic said that “India never cared about democracy in Bangladesh, as long as the person in power supports Indian national interests.”

He thinks though, “India does not decide policy” but it does have “clear asks.”

These are, first, to treat the Hindu community fairly. India does not want an exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh to India. Second, to make sure that Bangladeshi territory is not used to host militant groups seeking to attack India. And the third is improved transport connectivity, to obviate economic obstacles created by 1947 partition borders.

Paliwal says that Hasina has delivered on all these “asks”.

However, he noted that the “trade deficit between Bangladesh and India is massive” and that Bangladesh is far from being the “beneficiary” of the relationship.

India does, however, have some reservations about Bangladesh, “India’s problem with Bangladesh is not that it does not help India enough, but that Hasina has limited her own politics and narrowed her own political support by her actions, and hedging the bets in relation to China.”

For example, Paliwal points to India’s concern that Bangladesh purchased submarines from China and allowed China to invest heavily in Dhaka’s infrastructure projects. India is also concerned that Hasina has created a political turmoil for herself in Bangladesh which could in the future allow China to dislodge India from its influential perch.

US and India’s view on Bangladesh
A lot has been written about the US policy towards Bangladesh, its imposition of sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and its senior officers and more recently its push for “free and fair elections” in Bangladesh, culminating in its introduction of an election visa policy that allowed the US to stop those who interfered with fair elections from getting US visas.

Paliwal, however, thought that US pre-election visa policy was in fact “very cautious”. The US “did not name the individuals sanctioned. Only the individuals who were sanctioned knew.”

The US State Department, he said, thought that supporting free and fair elections in Bangladesh aligned with its global stance against authoritarianism and that there was a wider risk that Sheikh Hasina’s centralised use of state authority — preventing a peaceful transfer of power — could enable China to get the upper hand in Bangladesh, which India would in the end not be able to counter.

Regarding the US stance on the country’s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Paliwal said, “The US never had a preference for the BNP, though India thinks it does.”

Paliwal said that India and the US policies towards Bangladesh, “don’t interconnect. There is no meeting of minds between the US and India.”

He added that while in India “there is a consensus over policy”, in the US there is a split between on the one hand the State Department and on the other US national security agencies “who are making bottom line calculations [about national security interests] and do not want to rock the boat.”

He thinks that when push comes to shove, “the US is not going to impose blanket sanctions on Bangladesh.” He points to the fact that sanctions take a long time to act, they have unforeseen results, and that once the US used the sanctions, it would have limited leverage as it had already pressed the button.”

He did say however that “targeted sanctions might still come.”

India in current political scenario
In relation to the current political situation, he said that India did try to reach out to the opposition BNP to get them to participate in the election, but that it was “too late and they offered too little”.

He said that Delhi was surprised by BNP’s capacity to endure as a party, and how Tarique Rahman, from exile in London, had been able to get the BNP’s factions together.

India’s foreign policy is generally very conservative, he said. “I think it will support Hasina to the hilt until the ground shifts when a whole new political reality emerges at Hasina’s cost.”

Paliwal, back in November 2023, said that India is the only country close enough to Bangladesh who could use military power quickly if necessary. He pointed out that his research has found that during the Pilkhana mutiny in 2009, India was on the verge of committing troops into Bangladesh to ensure that its military supported Sheikh Hasina, so in an extreme situation, Bangladesh is not off limits for the Indian military.

However, Paliwal thinks that in a real crisis “at most India would undertake some tailored army intervention to save Hasina’s life” if she was under threat.

Nothing more.

Bangladesh Army
There is always in Bangladesh much consideration given to the role of the army. It was only 16 years ago that the army, in effect, pressured the president to announce an emergency, as part of an internationally supported “coup”. This resulted in a two year hiatus of political government, which ended in the election of the Awami League government in 2009.

Paliwal views the current Chief of Army Staff, SM Shafiuddin Ahmed, as someone who is “loyal” to the prime minister and who “prides himself in playing by rules.”

“By rules I mean to the rule that the civil administration is superior to the military.” However, at the same time, he says, it would “not take much to shift” his position and noted that Shafiuddin does have a rivalry with Tarique Siddique, the prime minister’s security affairs advisor.

BNP’s strategy and a black swan event
Back in November, Paliwala said that “Both sides wanted the other to escalate and then to trip. They want the other to over-escalate. The AL wants the BNP to burn more buses. And the BNP wants AL to kill more people.”

He thought that if the army did not intervene (a situation he thought unlikely), the BNP is hoping for a 1996 scenario, in which the election is so discredited, that there is a popular demand for a new election organised under a non-partisan government.

He pointed out that a powerful moment for the BNP will be when its chairperson, Khaleda Zia, dies and Tarique Rahman, her son, would have to decide whether to return from London to Dhaka.

“If he says he wants to go to his mother’s janaza, that could be a powerful moment for the BNP,” Paliwal said. “It could bring millions onto the street. The homecoming of the prodigal son. Whether the government allows him to attend or arrests him at the airport, it would cause all kinds of political problems. Either way, the government is reacting to his politics. It could be a black swan event that no one has really thought about.”

Finally, I asked Paliwal, as I ask everybody, who he thought would win an election if it was free and fair. “The BNP, due mostly to anti-incumbency factors,” he said. “But, AL would give the BNP a good fight.”●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) is a journalist based in Britain who has written widely on Bangladesh. (He was English Editor at Netra News until May 2023)