Can PM Narendra Modi Help Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina Sail Through Protests?

The ruckus in Bangladesh will not be very good for India, especially when China’s incursions at the border are not stopping. India can, and should, play a role in facilitating stability in Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Thousands of supporters of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s main opposition party, took out a rally in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka on Saturday, protesting against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government and demanding her resignation.

The protests came after the Bangladeshi security forces on Tuesday stormed the headquarters of the opposition BNP. 

The crisis in Bangladesh has been brewing amid skyrocketing prices of essential items, fuel, and frequent power cuts, a cascading spate of woes chiefly triggered by the ongoing Ukraine War that has forced the government to suspend gas and diesel imports amid high energy prices. Although Bangladesh’s macro-economic position took a hit in the heel during the waves of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the discontentment of the masses was majorly catalysed by the Ukraine factor that crippled the economy. 

Soaring inflation coupled with the diminishing value of the Bangladeshi currency has filled Bangladeshis with resentment, the fact that has successfully allowed the BNP —a party that was majorly sidelined and was almost considered clout-less— to mobilise the masses against the two-time incumbent Hasina. BNP, for sure, is having leverage as Bangladesh is slated for general elections next year. 

Hasina, since taking to the helm of affairs, has been repeatedly accused by human rights groups of high-handedness, brandishing the brutal arm against her critics, political opponents, journalists, and even the disenchanted citizenry. Laws like the 2018 Digital Security Act, which the United Nations (UN) called “draconian”, have helped Hasina quell even the minutest of dissent, and over the past two years, more than 2,000 people have been detained under it. After the Dhaka protests, dozens were detained, including two senior Opposition leaders Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Mirza Abbas

The message is clear — people are upset and BNP is catalysing the anger. Even if Hasina steps down, and BNP assumes power in the 2023 elections, this is unlikely to change the financial status quo of the country because the rot lies in the economy. BNP might not be able to appease the alienated people because it cannot offer a timely solution to the financial crisis. Any change in the political status quo will likely shove the region into perpetuating instability, with the anger of the disenchanted citizens only escalating. 

Some political observers believe that the country is surging towards a Sri Lanka-like situation, and that would be the last thing India needs in the region. 

Avinash Paliwal writes, “[it]...will only add to India’s geopolitical woes in its east where endemic violence and Chinese ingress continues to stymie New Delhi’s geoeconomic aspirations.”

For India, there is a lot on the table right now. It is actively playing, or at least claiming, an active role in brokering peace Ukraine War. India played a key role in ending Russia’s blockade of the Ukrainian grain ships and asked Russia to de-escalate the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant shelling in Ukraine.

The ruckus in Bangladesh will not be very good for India, especially when China’s incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are not stopping. Given the relationship between India and Bangladesh, India definitely can, and should play a role in facilitating stability in Bangladesh. 

Over the years, a string of issues has kept BNP on its toes for criticising Hasina’s growing camaraderie with Modi. Defence pacts signed between India and Bangladesh were flagged by critics as they believed “defence-related MOUs undermine the independence of Bangladesh’s armed forces in choice of procurement or training and unfairly binds them to India.”

“Elements in the Bangladesh army see big neighbour India as a threat and do not want to be pushed into buying military hardware from it because India itself is a major net importer,” wrote Subir Bhaumik in 2017.

Bhaumik further wrote, “Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) do not want Bangladesh to get caught up in the Sino–Indian rivalry and they feel the defence deals may upset Beijing.”

Among a string of issues that are disenchanting Bangladeshi voters —a huge chunk of whom are peasants— is the longstanding dispute on the Teesta river-sharing agreement between the two countries. Dhaka wished for an equitable distribution of the river water with India on the lines of the Ganga Water Treaty, but nothing significant has materialised as of yet. 

Hasina’s critics believe that the benefits between the two countries flow only from Dhaka to New Delhi and not vice versa and that India should as well equally reciprocate. Bangladesh has been maintaining a sturdy crackdown on Islamic radical groups in the country, helping New Delhi contain the violence in the eastern and north-eastern states. 

Bangladeshis living along the Teesta River face enormous woes, flooding being one of them. As per reports, the detrimental effects on the Teesta river cost the Bangladeshi economy and climate at least $1 billion annually. An efficient solution to these woes could be Modi’s cooperation with Bangladesh to solve the Teesta River dispute. 

Last month, Hasina said that she hopes Bangladesh and India would be able to resolve the Teesta water sharing and other issues through deliberation and dialogue. Perhaps, if Modi extends arms to Dhaka, it could help Hasina assuage the anger of her citizens and quell the rebellion that can potentially land the country in disaster. It is in the interest of both countries, particularly as China’s billion-dollar project to restore and manage the Teesta river in Bangladesh is back on the table, which some experts see as a debt-trapping manoeuvre of China to further solidify its sway in the Indo-Pacific region, a development to which India would want to firmly stand against.