If the right wing tries to make good Narendra Modi’s ‘pack up’ threat it will only whip up anti-Indian passions that will help radical forces recover in Bangladesh

During elections in Bangladesh, the “India factor” is often whipped up by parties opposed to the Awami League, where it is then accused of being an Indian lackey, unable to protect national interests and of selling out to India. Similarly, in India’s border States like Assam, the “Bangladesh factor” is always played up before elections. The issue of illegal migration from our eastern neighbour is raised by parties opposed to the Congress, which is blamed for indulging in “vote-bank politics.” But rarely has Bangladesh figured so strongly as a national political issue as it has in this general election.

As the long and staggered election finally comes to an end, the campaign is leaving India’s relations with Bangladesh embittered and uncertain. India’s High Commissioner in Dhaka, Pankaj Saran has sought to allay apprehensions, especially among the ruling Awami League and its allies, that a regime change in Delhi will not affect India-Bangladesh relations, but most in Bangladesh are not so sure. The uncertainty surfaced during a one-day conclave on India-Bangladesh relations in Dhaka in early May with most local participants hotly debating the future direction of Delhi’s policies. Their reaction to veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar’s observation that not much will change “even if Modi comes to power” varied between doubt and derision.

To net votes and allies

It all started with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Though the poster boy of Hindutva played down religious issues during his rallies elsewhere in the country, he whipped it up in the east and northeast by his vitriolic articulation of the illegal migration issue. In his rallies in Assam in March, he harped on three issues while raising the Bangladesh “infiltration” question — (a) he insisted that illegal migration from Bangladesh continued to be a threat because it was changing the demography of the State and the region (b) he sought to differentiate between Hindus who were fleeing persecution and Muslims who were economic migrants or troublemakers, insisting that it was India’s bounden duty to shelter Hindus but throw out the “others” (c) he called for strong border management, indirectly justifying what Border Security Force personnel often do — shoot at Bangladeshis seen near the border.

Mr. Modi was obviously playing to the gallery. In a State which has witnessed powerful mass agitations on the “foreign infiltration” question and frequent ethnic clashes involving natives and settlers of East Bengali origin since 1979, he was playing up the “Bangladesh factor” to paint the ruling Congress into a corner by blaming it for “encouraging infiltration to build vote-banks.” But with the BJP no longer an ally of the Asom Gana Parishad, he was also trying to hijack the “infiltration card” from them and translate anti-Bangladeshi sentiments into votes for the BJP. By promising to protect Hindus who fled Bangladesh, he was seeking to bring round Bengali Hindus on the same boat as the ethnic Assamese and tribespeople (who resent growing Muslim numbers in the State), seeking to make the most of a “Hindu consolidation.”

But what Mr. Modi started was then carried to absurd limits by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy who demanded that Bangladesh should compensate India by giving away parts of its territory if it could not take back illegal migrants. That set alarm bells ringing in Dhaka because Mr. Swamy’s demands were on the lines of what was raised by the “proponents” of the “Bangabhumi” movement. That movement — which Dhaka alleged had support from elements of Indian intelligence and ultra-Hindu groups — pushed for a “refugee homeland” carved out of Bangladesh’s territory. Other local BJP leaders continued to harp on strong anti-Bangladesh themes ranging from attacks on Hindus there, even under the present government, to changing the demography of border districts to much else.

Mr. Modi’s final salvo came during his recent rallies in West Bengal when he asked “Bangladeshi infiltrators to pack their bags and leave” by May 16, the day the results of India’s nine-phase parliamentary election will be announced. That Mr. Modi blamed the former ruling Left Front, the Congress and the incumbent Trinamool Congress for indulging in “vote-bank politics” and “minority appeasement” was all a part of a plan for distinctive branding — that the BJP was different from all other parties that had ruined Bengal and that its voters needed to give the saffron party a chance. BJP insiders say this high pitch campaign in Bengal and Assam and the rest of the northeast is designed to win as many seats as possible in “low impact zones” using whatever it takes.

Fallout in West Bengal

Many would also see this as part of the pressure the BJP wants to build on regional parties like the Trinamool Congress to fall in line and provide support if needed to form a government in Delhi. So far, it has not worked and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has hit back at Mr. Modi as furiously as she has attacked the Congress and the Left in the past. She has even asked the Election Commission to arrest him and warned of “serious repercussions in Delhi” if even a single Bengali-speaking person is affected by any anti-migrant drive. Many would attribute that to her sudden perception of the BJP constituting a major threat and her determination to reinforce her popularity among Bengal’s Muslims, who comprise more than a fourth of the electorate.

The Chief Minister also wants to nip in the bud any attempt to push back through West Bengal so-called Bangladesh infiltrators, hounded in other Indian States, if Mr. Modi leads the BJP to power. Such pushbacks during the last tenure of BJP rule in Delhi were strongly contested by Bengal’s former Left rulers who alleged that the BJP was trying to target Bengali Muslims who were bona fide Indians. And if that happens again, it is not the Left now out of power but Ms. Banerjee who will have a lot to answer for before the State’s Muslim population.

Ms. Banerjee is more worried about this than about the possible impact on relations with Bangladesh. In her election speeches, she too has indulged in her share of Bangladesh bashing, though done somewhat differently than by the BJP. During her election rallies in northern Bengal, she has hit out at the United Progressive Alliance government for “conspiring to give away more than their due share of Teesta waters to Bangladesh.” She said it will “hurt our farmers in north Bengal.” And, she has continued opposing the Land Boundary agreement saying “we will lose much territory if the accord is implemented.”

For Bangladesh, two steps back

For someone who went out of her way to address India’s security and connectivity concerns by cracking down on rebels from the northeast and Islamic radicals, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has reasons to feel she has lost, to use a Bengali proverb, both the mango and the sack. Ms. Banerjee’s continued opposition to accords on Teesta river water sharing and the land boundary agreements means that no future government in Delhi will be able to push the two agreements Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had promised to take forward.

That Ms. Hasina’s opponents in Bangladesh have wasted no time in playing up her failure to get India to implement these agreements was evident when the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by her arch rival Khaleda Zia organised a “long march” to the Teesta Barrage in late April to highlight “the government’s failure to protect national interests on a crucial issue with river water sharing.” The BNP may be down after not contesting the January 5 parliamentary polls that helped the Awami League’s return to power, but it is not out and will do all that it can to embarrass Ms. Hasina for “doing too much for India without getting anything in return.”

But the Awami League and secular allies have more to fear from a BJP-led government that seeks to whip up the ghost of infiltration. Any large-scale pushback from India of so-called Bangladeshis will unleash religious passions in Bangladesh, lead to attacks on Hindus and help Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and radicals like the HuJI reclaim lost ground to corner the Awami League. The Jamaat is desperate to claw its way back after the War Crimes Tribunal convicted its senior leaders of “crimes against humanity” during the 1971 Liberation War.

If Mr. Modi’s saffron brigade tries to make good his “pack up” threat, it will only end up whipping up the kind of anti-Indian passions that will help the Jamaat recover and Ms. Hasina to suffer. Senior Indian diplomat Rajiv Sikri has described Bangladesh as India’s most important neighbour and a friendly regime in Dhaka as critical to the security and development of India’s east and northeast. The shrill electioneering by Mr. Modi and Ms. Banerjee have done enough damage to the “feel-good” spirit that Dr. Singh and Ms. Hasina had introduced in bilateral relations. If Mr. Modi is worth his promise of “rajdharma” (governance), he will have to stop his election rhetoric and continue to bridge the trust gap with Bangladesh. What worries many in Bangladesh is not the prospect of Mr. Modi in power, which may mellow him, but the possibility of the BJP just failing to make it to power which may then encourage it to whip up the rhetoric on illegal migration.

(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC Correspondent, is a former Queen Elizabeth House fellow at Oxford University and Eurasian-Nets fellow at Frankfurt University.)

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