One of India’s most read and oldest English-language dailies, The Hindu, posted an article by foreign-policy journalist Kallol Bhattacherjee early on Saturday about Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s fourth consecutive snub of India’s high commissioner to Dhaka, Riva Ganguly Das.
The article reflected the outcry of the Indian foreign-policy realm on Bangladesh’s recent “tilt” toward China and Pakistan, countries they consider to be India’s “adversaries.”
The story also represents the mindset of Indian Foreign Service officials and foreign affairs journalists on how they see their small and weak neighbors in South Asia. Indian external-affairs mandarins consider themselves viceroys and their neighbors as Indian colonies.
India has been facing one foreign-policy debacle to another in the neighborhood after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won the 2014 general election. Although India’s strategists, politicians, many strategic analysts, and foreign-policy journalists who are cheerleaders of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda, noting that India has gained support from the US and the Quad countries, none of the South Asian countries except Bhutan, an Indian protectorate, have supported New Delhi.
Indo-Pakistani relations can be best described as a belligerent since the Uri attacks on September 18, 2016. At that time, New Delhi accused Islamabad of involvement in exporting terrorism against India. There is no sign of normalizing their relationship soon.
India on August 5, 2019, revoked Article 370 of its constitution that had granted Jammu and Kashmir special status. It issued a new political map of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, including Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s three districts, after designating the territory as administrated by the Indian federal government on November 2.
The Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army have been facing off in Ladakh since May 15 this year. Chinese strategists believe that India stabbed China in the back while the latter was temporarily vulnerable to allegations of mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nepal protested India’s issuance of the new political map, which also included Lipidhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani, territories claimed by Kathmandu. Nepal-India relations have been at a record low since May 15.
Relations had normalized in early 2016, having deteriorated when India imposed an economic blockade against Nepal in September 2015 as Kathmandu refused to succumb to New Delhi’s pressure to declare the country a Hindu state in the new constitution that was promulgated that month.
As for Bangladesh, it has refused Indian requests for talks several times since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration passed the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 11, 2019. The CAA allows granting of Indian citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered Indian territory before December 31, 2014.
Although the Indian government had praised the Bangladeshi government for taking measures to protect religious minorities, the CAA allows non-Muslim migrants who entered India before December 2014 from Bangladesh to apply for citizenship by claiming they had been persecuted. Hasina has been in power since January 2009.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen canceled his trip at the time of boarding the aircraft for New Delhi that was scheduled for December 12-14, 2019.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Anurag Srivastava tweeted that Momen had canceled his India trip because of his busy schedule coinciding with Martyred Intellectuals Day and Victory Day in Bangladesh, adding that the Bangladeshi state minister for foreign affairs, Shahriar Alam, and the foreign secretary were also out of the country.
However, it was widely believed that Momen and his cabinet colleague Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan canceled their India trip over their dissatisfaction with the situation developing out of BJP government’s passing of the controversial CAA.
Speaking on a motion to thank the president of India for his speech at a joint session of the Indian Parliament, Viplove Thakur, a member from the Indian National Congress of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, said that four Bangladeshi ministers had rejected New Delhi’s invitation to visit India on February 7, 2020, over the CAA row.
Although she didn’t mention the names of any of those Bangladeshi ministers or their portfolios, it seems clear that the BJP’s nationalist agenda has been diminishing India’s sphere of influence sharply in the neighborhood.
The timing of The Hindu report matters a lot to Indians. The Sino-Indian military standoff in Ladakh has been dragging on. Amid New Delhi’s tense relationship with Beijing, Bangladesh and China signed a duty-free agreement on June 19. Under that pact, China provides duty-free access to 97% of Bangladeshi products.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh is expediting the strengthening of its ties with China. It awarded a contract for construction of a new terminal at Osmani International Airport in Sylhet to a Chinese company, Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUCG). The airport is near the border between Bangladesh and the northeastern Indian state of Assam.
Referring to Bhorer Kagoj, a prominent Bangladeshi daily, The Hindu reported that Sheikh Hasina had refused to meet with the Indian high commissioner despite repeated requests during the last four months.
The Hindu quoted Shyamal Dutta, the editor of Bhorer Kagoj, as saying, “Despite India’s concern, Bangladesh has given the contract of building an airport terminal in Sylhet to a Chinese company. Indian High Commissioner Riva Ganguly Das tried for four months to get an appointment with the prime minister of Bangladesh but did not get it.
“Bangladesh has not even sent a note of appreciation to India in response to Indian assistance for the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The Hindu also reported that all Indian projects in Bangladesh have slowed down since Sheikh Hasina was re-elected as prime minister for a third time in 2019 while speeding up Chinese infrastructure projects.
Dhaka’s snub came after a similar move by Iran recently. Tehran has decided to implement the Chabahar Port Railway Project without India’s investment after the two countries had signed an agreement to undertake the project jointly. The Hindu’s story of new development in Dhaka depicts how Bangladesh hit India’s nose hard after Iran had done so.
What happened in the past matters for the future to a person or a country because they can learn from past mistakes and avoid repeating them. But in India, the opposite is true. The BJP government is not learning from the past and is committing the same mistakes one after another.
The events after the BJP was re-elected for a second term in May 2019 have taken India nowhere on the global stage. India has not been able to maintain its vanguard position on the South Asian regional stage either. The BJP’s re-election looks like an albatross hung on India’s neck, not only in domestic affairs but also in foreign affairs, particularly in the neighborhood.