The 2019 Indian general election, which will have its third round of polling today, is proving to be as challenging as predicted. With 900 million people eligible to vote and set to be held in a total of seven phases over six weeks, this election is being touted as the world's largest exercise in democracy and one of the most expensive. Yet messages coming out of this grand democratic experiment, especially for India's neighbours, are hardly uplifting as it marks an escalation of rhetoric that could be damaging to the South Asian dream for unity.
Bangladesh, which has traditionally strong ties with India, has emerged as a polarising factor in the election. The propaganda value of issues such as security, immigration and religion is not lost on the far-right political parties in India, which makes Bangladesh, among other countries, easy pickings for their vitriol-filled campaigns. Prominent among these parties is the ruling BJP, which is desperate to recreate its 2014 magic. In 2014, the BJP won an outright majority of seats in parliament in a rare feat in India's fractious politics. At the heart of its election campaign was Narendra Modi's strident brand of Hindu nationalism which regards India as a nation defined by its majority faith—much like Israel or indeed Pakistan. Some have called it Modi's version of the two-nation theory, minus its political vision for partition.
The 2019 election also saw the BJP ramp up its campaign against two of its favourite punching bags: India's Muslim minority and “illegal” Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. Both are issues viewed with suspicion in Bangladesh.
In India, although there are immigrants from different countries, the anti-immigrant rhetoric basically revolves around those from Bangladesh, more specifically the Muslims. At issue is their faith rather than their nationality. On April 11, in a thinly-veiled swipe at the Muslim immigrants, BJP President Amit Shah told supporters in West Bengal that, if voted back to power, the BJP government would “pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” He referred to these immigrants as “termites”, a description that he also used in September. But the government “won't send the Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Buddhists coming in from Bangladesh or Pakistan,” he said, “because they are our brothers and they've come here because they've faced persecution in those countries.”
Shah's comments are nothing but a reflection of the BJP election manifesto, unveiled by Modi on April 8, which promised to ensure passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) to give citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan—in other words, non-Muslim immigrants. In the past, BJP has often suggested that Hindus in Muslim-majority Bangladesh are being harassed and pledged to shelter them in India. As accommodating as it sounds, it's a dangerous political game played at the expense of Bangladesh as it portrays the country as one unable or unwilling to look after its own minorities.
But the thing that most affects the health of Indian politics is majoritarianism, which makes the rights of minorities secondary to the whims of the majority. In BJP-speak, it means that the Muslim population is no more than the sum of their votes which can be taken advantage of. That said, the Bangladeshi immigrant issue is both bane and boon for the BJP. The party has readily jumped on the anti-immigrant bandwagon considering its populist appeal, but then has been accused of communal politics as it included only Muslims in its definition of immigrants.
Clearly, the BJP is playing the communal card to woo rightwing Hindu voters. This in turn gives its rivals an opportunity to appear more liberal. Interestingly, although Congress has sought to promote inclusivity with a strong dose of social welfare schemes in its election manifesto, its tryst with populism is well-documented. It's worth recalling what the writer-activist Arundhati Roy said about Congress doing by night what the BJP does by day. For example, since its win in the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly election in December, according to a report by The Economist, Congress has “outdone the BJP in cow protection, budgeting millions to build shelters for retired cattle.” Congress President Rahul Gandhi's failure to stand up strongly for a secular India speaks of an ideological elasticity embedded in how the party functions. It also creates what we can call a “political blur”—in which the line traditionally drawn between political opposites gets blurred. We have witnessed a similar kind of blur in left-wing politics in Europe, trying to combine liberal ideologies with the nativist/conservative rhetoric.
For the record, immigration is an issue not just in Assam, which shares a porous border with Bangladesh, but also in other Indian states like West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Delhi. BJP has promised to root out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants (read Muslim immigrants) by implementing the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) nationwide. Since the hugely controversial NRC was mooted in Assam last year, it has prompted fears of possible deportation among hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state. An estimated four million people's citizenship is at risk. Although both India and Bangladesh have so far played down the threat of a possible deportation, all likely scenarios after a successful implementation of the NRC in its current form put Bangladesh at the receiving end of troubles.
In this context, the mood in Bangladesh has been perfectly captured by an editorial by the Hindustan Times: “In Bangladesh, there is growing disquiet among the political leadership over threats by Indian politicians to push back people excluded from the National Register of Citizens... as well as India's perceived silence on the issue of Myanmar [not] taking back hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh.” One can safely say that this is a feeling shared by the ordinary Bangladeshis also.
It's only reasonable that Bangladesh takes an active interest in how the Indian general election pans out. Although internal issues of one country are not expected to affect the other, often the opposite is the case, which finds a potent expression during elections in both countries. At this point, because of BJP's extremist pro-Hindu policies, most Bangladeshis will probably be concerned about the likelihood of a BJP return to power for five more years. One of the proponents of this view is Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University who, according to a report by Dhaka Tribune, says he will prefer a Congress-led government over BJP. “The main reason being that during the last five years under Narendra Modi, there has been a significant rise of Hindu extremism and intolerance towards minorities, especially Muslims.” In case of BJP being re-elected, things are likely to get worse, he says. “If this happens, religious extremists in our country may use this as an excuse to harm our minorities, and provoke people to do the same.”
This is wishful thinking, however. Most analysts and voter surveys have put the BJP-led alliance ahead of the one led by Congress. But even a Congress government, in the unlikely event that it is formed and can resist the temptation of populism, may not fare any better in India's communally charged atmosphere. After all, the biggest threat in today's India is Hindu majoritarianism, which didn't begin with BJP and will not end with BJP either. And it is rising, by all indications, in the absence of a strong and attractive liberal alternative. Over the decades, the spirit of Hindu nationalism has penetrated so deeply into the heart of the Indian society that it's a wonder this is the same country that has a glorious history of struggle to build a liberal society.
That being said, for Bangladesh, beyond the spillover effects of India's internal issues and policies, there is not much to worry about. Since its first day at work, the Modi government had focused on improving ties with India's immediate neighbours as part of its “neighbourhood first” policy. This will likely continue whichever party/alliance comes to power, because Indian foreign policy hardly changes with the change of a government in Delhi, especially with respect to Bangladesh. "In terms of cooperation in politics, business, and other sectors of cooperation, I don't expect any change in policies from either side of the border," says Imtiaz Ahmed. "They should continue as usual."
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.