Ayush Majumdar, Gouri Sankar Nag
Cohort or facade is the deeper point at issue but what is prima facie undeniable is the hype in the atmosphere over Modi’s another well-calculated foreign policy move to visit Bangladesh on March 26 that meets three objectives at one go: taking part in the golden jubilee celebration of Bangladesh liberation (1971-2021), centenary year of Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman’s birthday (born on 17th March 1920) and 50 years of diplomatic relations between India and Bangladesh. Riding on the crest of this huge popular emotion it seems an immensely significant occasion for India’s foreign policy establishment to respond with similar flamboyant gesture that is already evident in New Delhi’s strategic decision to confer prestigious Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize to Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman. This is a welcome move indeed not only for India’s outreach to Bangladesh but broadly for strengthening India’s overall regional strategy in South Asia at a juncture when our relations with China have become a mix of surmise and confrontation.
It is also important to understand that currently India has been sidelined on two fronts, one is Russia led Afghanistan peace talks and another is India’s exclusion from the dialogue triangle between China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, despite the fact that both Rohingya crisis and martial law in Myanmar, an outcome of clash of ego of its civil and military leadership and China’s covert support to tatmadaw, are palpable security threats to India. Obviously in this backdrop the situation demands tremendous upscaling of India-Bangladesh bonhomie. But the point is can this optimism be transformed and elevated to a greater trust-based reciprocity given India’s stance to project her ambitious global image beyond immediate South Asian region, since Modi is pursuing a broad power-realist agenda unlike Nehru or I. K. Gujral.
However in reshaping India’s foreign policy in the post-COVID era the importance of the immediate theatre in seeking Samriddhi, Sanskritik yog, Vikas and Pragati can hardly be ignored. From that perspective we need a retooling of the cultural connect that the Indian sub-continent offers historically in terms of its rich heritage of divergent ethnic milieu of language, religion, socio-cultural aspects. Yet the identity projected by the ‘ideological apparatuses of the modern state crafting a civic identity of the citizens is a neoteric development vis-à-vis the primordial character of the people generated by the centuries old civilizational plinth which impart a distinctive socio-cultural outlook and often a distinctive physiognomic uniqueness. The civic identity of citizenship constructed by the modern state through constitutional means is imposed from above within the already culturally moulded human beings.
Relations between nation-states are conducted through formal channels recognizing the state as focal point but the will of the state changes with time especially in a democratic setup where the actual sovereignty lies with the electorate who use their general will through the means of universal adult suffrage. Hence, the state is but a body that gives a formal character to the informal societal culture enmeshed in the spatial and temporal milieu. Therefore, any analysis of future movement of foreign policy between two nations can be framed through understanding or comprehending that societal milieu prevailing in both the nations. This logical argument has its specific limitations but it applies to the sub-continent and precisely to the Indo-Bangladesh relationship quite squarely.
The geographical dimension to this relationship is quite salient because of the uniqueness of this region as a whole assumed in the pre-partition era to give a common ‘Bengali’ identity to its inhabitants and defining their cultural spectrum. Hence, religion provides a different symmetry as well as asymmetry but the core identitatem of Bengali-ness inherent to the people form a symmetry among the people in both the side of the border.
The importance of Bengali-ness within the people of Bangladesh is testament to the 1971 Bangladesh liberation movement which gave birth to a new nation on ethnic lines. However, there are two contrasting forces operating within the Muslim populace of West Bengal and East Bengal – the force of Bengali-ness and the force of Muslim-ness. The rise of the Hindu nationalist forces has given rise to the diametrically opposite force of Hindu-ness and Bengali-ness in the region of West Bengal(Datta & Srinivasan, 2015). The Indo-Bangladesh relationship is embedded in this cohort of dialectical framework where the forces of Bengali-ness on the one hand and the forces of Hindu-ness and Muslim-ness needs to be balanced in order to favourably steer the relationship to productive direction.
The lever of maintaining this dialectical balance is ostensibly linked to the internal political dynamics of Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal. While there is an influential troika shaping the internal political dynamism of Bangladesh in the form of the Awami League led by PM Sheikh Hasina, The Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia and the Ulemas. While the former dons a secular aspect and stresses on the Bengali-ness, the other two sections stress more on the Muslim-ness with an increasing ideological orientation towards Islam from the BNP to the Ulema onwards.
The incumbent Bangladeshi unitarian government of the Awami League the balance has so far been maintained though in a delicate sort of way. On the other hand, in the state of West Bengal, the internal political dynamics is undergoing modification with the troika of BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party), TMC (Trinamool Congress) and the triumvirate of variegated front of CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist), INC (Indian National Congress) and the neophyte ISF (Indian Secular Front). These three points of power represent an amalgamation of outlooks with the TMC stressing on Bengali-ness, the BJP stressing on Hindu-ness and the triumvirate front representing a unique idea of Bengali-ness, Muslim-ness and Hindu-ness. However, the resultant admixture is a significant potpourri which is an advanced stage of social conception but in an infantile stage with respect to the Indian electorate.
If the first law of thermodynamics is to be applied in a setting where the population between the two system is assumed to be constant in this point of time and the boundary chalked out, the resultant increase in Hindu-ness or Muslim-ness is antithetical to the aspect of Bengali-ness which as a matter of fact is the keeper of secularism in this relationship between the two nations.
The PM of India, Shri Narendra Modi will be visiting Bangladesh on March 26 and March 27, 2021. The visit is in connection with the commemoration of three epochal events – Mujib Borsho, the birth centenary of Mujibur Rahman; 50 years of the establishment of the diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and India; and 50 years of Bangladesh’s liberation. This would be the first visit by PM Shri Narendra Modi during the pandemic period. The bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh stood at $9.45 billion in 2019-2020. India is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and is engaged both bilaterally and multilaterally through many platforms such as SAARC, BIMSTEC, BBIN, IORA, Commonwealth Nations, United Nations etc. Though there has been various institutional framework through which this relationship has been defined and constructed over time the ultimate output in terms of fusion of strategic interests have been negligible and promiscuous to be precise.
There has not been the generation of the same level of bonhomie that India enjoys or maintains with Bhutan or Maldives within the South Asian region despite the fact that India played such an imperative role in the transition to Bangladesh from the East Pakistan which was in a subservient position vis-à-vis West Pakistan in the metropolis-periphery relationship. However, the post-liberation experience in the Indo-Bangladesh relationship was marked by slumber in contrast to the enthusiasm that was expected out of it.
The substance of any relationship is imbued especially a relationship based on common border, common culture, language, past and heritage with the principle of 4R (Reconciliation, Renewal, Recognition and Rejuvenation). The application of 4R becomes more well thought of because the plinth and marrow of diplomatic relation is strong but the impulse to take it into the next level has been wanting. The structural fault-lines due to the contemporary wobbling affairs of the SAARC mechanism can be blamed to a large extent because it creates a situation of logjam where the participants are not able to refurbish their present status to higher one.
South Asia being the most fragmented region in the world is bearing the burnt of lower performance on all fronts be it economic, infrastructural, social, political etc. Therefore, with the slackening of tensions between India and Pakistan due to the recent ceasefire maintenance, the prospects for an enhanced SAARC opens up wider horizon of cooperation which will ultimately improve the living standards of the common people despite the various roadblocks that may come. However, a question remains how long will the negotiation and consensus building between all the states will go on for? When will SAARC have its own RCEP? India and Bangladesh can possibly move this in motion.
Moving into the earlier dialectical framework constructed between the inherent movement of the forces of Bengali-ness being lacerated by the idea of Hindu-ness and Muslim-ness, the conferment of the Gandhi Peace Prize to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman can be theoretically decoded to be an act of amelioration within the dialectical framework trying to balance the contrasting forces. Hence, neigh the electoral mandate disrupts the balance towards Hindu-ness and Bengali-ness, in contrast to the forces of Muslim-ness and Bengali-ness, the act of reaching out to Bangladesh at this point of time can be a significant move to galvanize the equilibrium to a favourable position.
There has never been a BJP vis-à-vis Hindu Nationalist regime on this side of the border facing Bangladesh. So, the possible outcomes to this variegated existence needs to be seen. The post-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019) repercussions in terms of anxious violence by the furious mobs were a clear indication of the menace that such distortion in the balance could lead to. This becomes even more acute in the case of CAA being implemented in Bengal post-election.
The SAARC needs to transition itself on the lines of ASEAN and violence be it regional or local, can only be Pre-ASEAN in its nature. Long-term political stability is sine qua non for economic growth and violence dents that stability. Social capital as a contributing factor to economic prosperity is well evident when it comes to analysing the difference between the prosperous Northern Italy and comparatively backward Southern Italy(Helliwell & Putnam, 1995). Violence, broken relations cannot strengthen social capital but dampen it. Can Atmanirbhar Bharat be more pronounced with Atmanirbhar South Asia?
Datta, S., & Srinivasan, K. (2015). Bangladesh. In D. M. Malone , C. R. Mohan , & S. Raghavan , The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy (pp. 384-397). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Helliwell, J., & Putnam, R. D. (1995). Economic Growth and Social Capital in Italy. Eastern Economic Journal, 21(3), 295-307. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40325643
This article first appeared in the Mainstream: Modi’s Bangladesh Visit: Is It New Delhi’s New Foreign Policy Cohort on March 27, 2021
About the Authors:
Ayush Majumdar is a student of Atish Dipankar Srijnan Centre of South Asian Studies, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, West Bengal
Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science and Coordinator of Atish Dipankar Srijnan Centre of South Asian Studies at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, West Bengal