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Bangladesh and Modi: Hopes and fears
Thursday May 22, 2014 10:48 AM, Subir Bhaumik, IANS

When Bangladesh media ran reports that Narendra Modi wants to set up a separate department in the Home Ministry to combat "infiltration", it provoked furious reactions with many suggesting a change of regime in Dhaka.

"Neither Hasina nor Khaleda can handle someone like Modi," said a tweet. Said another: "Let us also throw out the five lakh (500,000) Indians who work in Bangladesh, many on mere tourist visas."

For many in Delhi, this may be news but Indian remittances from Bangladesh has grown over the years with a flow of technical manpower to that country. "Let Modi throw out India's first lady who hails from our country," said another tweet, referring to Subhra Mukherjee's ancestral village in Narail which her husband, President Pranab Mukherjee, visited during his 2013 Bangladesh tour.

One hopes Modi, a Twitter enthusiast, should have seen these tweets to understand how the "India factor" plays out in Bangladesh. While both Prime Minister Hasina and Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chief Khaleda Zia called up Modi to congratulate him and Hasina invited him to visit Dhaka, at a popular level, there seems to be considerable unease with Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots and his recent threats to illegal migrants from Bangladesh to "pack up and leave".

As Bangladesh's top ladies went all out to court the poster-boy of Hindutva and even the Jamaat-e-Islami congratulated Modi on his victory, the public domain, specially the vibrant Bangla blogspace, was full of angst and uncertainity over Modi's taking over as India's prime minister with such a decisive majority. The media headlines were dominated by Modi all the while. Like it or not , a regime change in Delhi looks like something has changed in Dhaka.

Hasina has a great stake in carrying forward the improved bilateral relations with India, for which she has risked so much. Not only does she expect continued Indian support for her regime to offset Western, especially US pressure, for fresh elections, she also hopes Modi can do what Manmohan Singh tried and failed -- to sign the Teesta water sharing treaty and implement the land boundary agreement.

Manmohan Singh's government more than made up for the failure to sign and implement these agreements that Delhi has committed to, by strong support to ward off Western pressure Hasina faced over the Jan 5 parliament polls that the BNP-led opposition alliance boycotted. China and Russia later joined India in supporting Hasina to turn the tables on the US.

In backing Hasina, Manmohan Singh appeared as resolute as in going ahead with the India-US nuclear deal, though he could not get round Mamata Banerji on the Teesta and land boundary issues.

Hasina hopes the Modi government would value her as a strong ally for her effective crackdown on northeast Indian separatists and Islamic radicals and for addressing India's connectivity concerns and would help her deflect Western pressures for a fresh elections. Hasina would also be keen that Modi does not live up to his poll promise (which got BJP rich electoral dividends in Assam) of "pushing out Bangladeshi illegals" because any such pushback, however symbolic, would complicate bilateral relations and put huge domestic pressure on the Awami League government to get tough with India.

When Hasina told Modi to visit Bangladesh "soonest possible", she also reminded him that all outstanding bilateral issues can be sorted out through dialogue.

Her government has started a major crackdown on human trafficking rackets operating in the country. An Indian national, heading a ring smuggling young Bangladeshi women to work as maids in Indian states, has been arrested by Dhaka Police in May along with several of his local accomplices. Many similar racketeers have been nabbed in recent months. Hasina's government discourages illegal migration and promotes legal labour exports to any country which is interested. Her officials argue that legal migrants send back huge remittances which is Bangladesh's second biggest source of foreign exchange after garment exports.

Modi's own party has sent out conflicting signals -- its Assam unit has fiercely opposed the land boundary agreement and its Bengal unit is ambivalent on both the land boundary and the Teesta issues, though party general secretary Varun Gandhi (in charge of West Bengal) has supported both the agreements in the interests of good relations with Bangladesh in an edit-page article published by a leading national newspaper.

Khaleda Zia's priority also has much at stake. After being outmanouvred by Hasina in the Jan 5 polls, she would be keen to ensure India does not play favourites in Dhaka, a line briefly pursued by the Vaypayee government. Khaleda fondly recalls how then national security advisor Brajesh Mishra rushed to congratulate her in person as Vajpayee's emissary. Mishra's public statement that India has no favourites in Dhaka was very well received by the BNP. That changed within a few years after evidence surfaced that a huge amount of weapons were reaching the northeastern rebels through Bangladesh and Pakistan's ISI was using Bangladesh territory for backing them and Islamic radical groups targeting India.

Zia and her ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, which also congratulated Modi on his victory, would also seek maximum mileage if Modi lives up to his promise of pushing back Bangladeshi illegals. The inevitable anti-Indian groundswell will be a godsend for Khaleda Zia to revive her party and alliance and get them back on the streets. This is all the more true of Jamaat, which is cornered over its senior leaders facing death or life sentences over the 1971 war crimes.

BNP leaders have already organized a 'Long March' to Teesta in April to highlight how Hasina failed to secure "national interests" on critical issues like river water sharing. The right-wing opposition would pray for Modi to sneeze for Hasina to catch cold.

(The author is a journalist and regional analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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