Reading the Tea Leaves from Modi’s Washington Visit- Is Indian Support for Sheikh Hasina Waning?

Even before the red carpet was rolled out at the White House for visiting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indian pundits were vocal in stressing the importance of New Delhi’s protecting its interests in its neighborhood in the face of U.S. democracy promotion activities. In particular, they argued that India’s best bet in neighboring Bangladesh was to continue support for current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in the face of past US sanctions and newly-announced visa restrictions ahead of the country’s upcoming national elections. While Modi’s visit was intended to highlight Indian and American cooperation on ‘issues of mutual interests’, it was widely expected that areas of disagreement including Bangladesh would also feature in the bilateral discussions. Despite this anticipation, press reports following the visit were noticeably silent on Bangladesh. In particular, the expansive U.S.-India joint statement failed to mention Bangladesh, causing unease among supporters of Prime Minister Hasina who had expected that PM Modi would lobby President Biden on her behalf.

In contrast to the silence from Washington following the Modi visit, other quarters have been being increasingly vocal about developments in Bangladesh. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin applauded Sheikh Hasina for ‘speaking up the mind of a large part of the international community, especially the developing world’; referring to the her criticism of US sanctions. Meanwhile, Russia has accused the Americans and Europeans of exporting ‘neocolonialism’ and committing ‘blatant interference’ in the internal affairs of Bangladesh by urging for free polls. Iran’s state-supported television has also echoed the charges emanating from Moscow and Beijing. These comments ignore the widely held view that the previous two general elections in Bangladesh were widely seen as flawed. For their part, the European Union has echoed the U.S. emphasis on the importance of democracy and free elections, linking these to continued trade preferences. PM Hasina’s supporters appear determined to push foward with efforts to ensure a new five year term despite charges of widespread human rights violations. Highlighting the stakes involved, Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Politics & Government at Illinois State University, has noted that the future of multiparty democracy in Bangladesh is contingent upon the credibility of the upcoming election.

In the last two general elections, New Delhi stood firmly behind Prime Minister Hasina and her government. In the wake of Modi’s Washington visit and the subsequent silence on Bangladesh, observers have begun to wonder whether New Delhi may be quietly modifying its policy and hedging its bets on PM Hasina. There are also questions of whether India will continue to expend political capital advocating on PM Hasina’s behalf with the Biden Administration.

More broadly, questions remain on the extent to which the U.S. – India partnership will influence developments in the Asia Pacific Region. Daniel Markey, a senior advisor on South Asia at the United States Institute of Peace recently argued in Foreign Affairs magazine that ‘Washington and Delhi share interests, not values’. He added that “U.S. officials must understand that, deep down, India is not an ally.” Indian-origin Columnist Barkha Dutt argued in the Washington Post that ‘India will not take its cue from America on China; New Delhi wants to manage the relationship on its own terms’ and not ‘to confuse strategic cooperation for a long-term alliance’. Both articles were published on the eve of Prime Minister Modi’ visit and hinted that beneath the pomp and circumstance of the visit the substance of bilateral discussions might not live up to the hype. During the visit, PM Modi coined the term “AI” to describe the relationship between America and India (perhaps piggybacking on the current buzz around Artificial Intelligence). Both AI’s have important yet to be defined aspects. The role that democracy and human rights (the “values agenda”) is one of these areas for the America-India relationship, including how this will impact policy vis a vis Bangladesh.

In the run up to the Modi visit, John Kirby, the NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications, briefly commented on Bangladesh, as previously detailed in South Asian Perspectives. When asked how Bangladesh would feature in the bilateral discussions with PM Modi, Kirby stated that “We let the Indian government speaks for its bilateral relations with Bangladesh, but we have already made clear our desire to see free and fair elections in Bangladesh.” For his part, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, quite well known for his terse catchphrases, remarked that India was getting less involved with internal political affairs of its neighbors. The Foreign Minister’s shared these views when speaking at an event at the India International Center in Delhi to celebrate the successes of the Modi government and which came a week after the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington.

Notwithstanding its sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and the recently announced visa policy, over the course of Sheikh Hasina’s 15 years in power, it has been widely assumed that Washington would ultimately defer to New Delhi on policy toward Bangladesh. Recent assertiveness from Washington and the silence after the Modi visit are challenging this conventional wisdom. This will likely gain further traction with senior U.S. officials planning to visit Dhaka in the coming weeks while Indian officials are keeping a much lower profile than was the case prior to elections in 2014 and 2018. Absent further disclosures about the substance of the Modi-Biden discussions on Bangladesh, observers will continue attempting to read the tea leaves.

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