The outcome of the ongoing assembly elections in West Bengal will significantly influence the future of India-Bangladesh relations. Policymakers in both New Delhi and Dhaka are closely observing the electoral competition between the center-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) led by Mamata Banerjee, which has been in power in West Bengal since 2011.
The India-Bangladesh relationship is anchored in historical, cultural, and linguistic commonalities. Bilateral socioeconomic ties, especially in economic cooperation and disaster management, strengthened under Bangladesh’s Awami League government, which came to power in 2009. Since then, migration, water distribution, terrorism, and radicalization have guided bilateral discourse and policy preferences.
Since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the official Indian government narrative on Bangladesh has impacted political developments in the bordering states of Assam and West Bengal. West Bengal holds sway over issues of national strategic importance in India-Bangladesh relations, particularly issues of water-sharing, immigration, and border politics. Therefore, competing political actors in these states often use these federal transboundary issues to influence New Delhi’s policy preferences. Recently, the BJP has gained traction in the AITC-controlled West Bengal, using its anti-immigration rhetoric to challenge the left’s ideological and political establishment.
With the AITC’s “West Bengal first” approach to pressing bilateral issues of water-sharing, and the BJP’s radical rhetoric on border security, immigration, and terrorism, New Delhi will need to maintain a careful balance between sustaining bilateral relations with Bangladesh and managing West Bengal’s state politics irrespective of the election outcome.
Key Election Issue Areas
After 34 years of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led state governments between 1977 and 2011, the AITC led by Mamata Banerjee gained power in West Bengal and has governed the state since. The BJP started consolidating in West Bengal during the 2016 assembly elections. Benefiting from allegations of corruption against the AITC, the BJP increased its vote-share in West Bengal by ten-fold from four percent in 2011 to nearly 40 percent in the 2019 national elections. In 2021, the BJP has emerged as a major force in West Bengal politics. The Indian National Congress and the left-aligned parties in West Bengal, unlike the BJP, do not seem to mount enough of a challenge to the incumbent AITC government. It is too early to predict the election outcome; however, given West Bengal’s history of invariably delivering landslide results, the likely victor will either be the Mamata Banerjee-led AITC or the BJP.
New Delhi will need to maintain a careful balance between sustaining bilateral relations with Bangladesh and managing West Bengal’s state politics irrespective of the election outcome.
Considering the BJP’s aggressive stance on migration and terrorism stands in deep contrast to strengthening Islamic politics in Bangladesh, increased tensions across Indo-Bangladesh borderlands are expected in the case of a BJP win. For instance, the BJP’s Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah referred to illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites.” Bangladeshis have publicly reacted against the party’s policies, including the National Register of Citizens that requires proof of citizenship for Assam residents and the exclusion of Muslims from the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Therefore victory for the BJP, considering its agenda to implement stringent and divisive policies such as the CAA in West Bengal, would further fuel Bangladesh’s perception of Indian domestic policy as anti-Muslim, which may negatively impact bilateral relations.
In case of an AITC-win, the India-Bangladesh bilateral relationship would similarly suffer. For instance, despite New Delhi’s attempts for expanded cooperation on trade, West Bengal’s decision to halt imports from Bangladesh through the Petrapole-Benapole border due to COVID-19 concerns strained the strong Indo-Bangladesh economic partnership. Furthermore, the AITC’s refusal to share Teesta waters with Bangladesh under a potential Teesta water-sharing agreement threatens to delay the resolution of this pressing bilateral issue. In 2011, India and Bangladesh reached an interim deal on the Teesta Water dispute, but Mamata Banerjee opposed the agreement and has since brought it to a halt.
In 2019, the BJP-led central government signaled interest in revitalizing the stalled Teesta Water Agreement. However, without the consent of the West Bengal state assembly, it is impossible to finalize an agreement. Considering the BJP’s commitment to the agreement, state victory for the BJP would likely ensure the resolution of this long-standing issue, whereas an AITC win could further delay its settlement. The Bangladeshi government has emphasized the importance of the water agreement to the country’s economic development and has outlined the political repercussions of unnecessary delays. The continued suspension could generate anti-India rhetoric in Bangladesh, paving the way for a greater Chinese footprint in the region—Bangladesh has already been considering a USD $1 billion loan from China to manage the Teesta river. With China aiming for greater leverage over Bangladesh to consolidate its hegemony in Asia, political proximity between Beijing and Dhaka remains a daunting possibility for New Delhi.
Importantly, though the AITC is expected to clash with the BJP on several issues, a BJP-led West Bengal government may also be at odds with the BJP-led center. India’s federal characteristics, along with its cultural diversity, often force central governments to accommodate its policies according to state conditions. Thus, despite the BJP’s desire to implement its central-level electoral agenda in West Bengal, New Delhi has to incentivize the state government to act in a rational and restrained manner in the interest of maintaining cordial relations with Bangladesh.
This lack of alignment between New Delhi and West Bengal, regardless of the victor, coupled with interstate political rivalry over state assembly elections, could push both the BJP and the AITC to deadlock over important policies concerning Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations. In the event of a hung assembly in West Bengal, a lack of a coherent political mandate will contribute to further uncertainties and delays in finalizing policy priorities, potentially leading Dhaka to look for alternatives.
Though AITC is expected to clash with the BJP on several issues, a BJP-led West Bengal government may also be at odds with the BJP-led center.
Therefore, irrespective of the election results, the political rhetoric of West Bengal will continue to shape the strategic priorities of New Delhi vis-à-vis Dhaka. Maintaining closer Indo-Bangladesh relations is in the strategic interests of both nations. With both countries eyeing the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, a free trade agreement between India and other sovereign nations, New Delhi needs to ensure domestic political considerations do not adversely impact this relationship.
New Delhi’s Dilemma
India sees Bangladesh as one of the chief pillars in its “neighborhood first” policy and aims to benefit from its resurging economy. However, the BJP government’s desire to implement its electoral manifesto, which includes stringent border control and immigration policies, is bound to empower anti-India factions in Bangladesh. Simultaneously, the emergence of hardline Islamist groups in Bangladesh poses a new challenge to closer and sustainable bilateral relations.
Similarly, the AITC’s inability to strike a Teesta Water deal gives space to increasing Chinese involvement in Bangladesh’s river management projects. Regardless of which party wins, the central government will have to convince West Bengal to finalize an amicable and mutually beneficial water-sharing agreement. It should emphasize that the deal is not a zero-sum game as politically perceived but creates a win-win situation that will further contribute to mutual economic development.
For India-Bangladesh relations over the past several decades, local state politics yields an outsized influence on the broader bilateral relationship. Greater Indo-Bangladesh cooperation is desirable to both the center and West Bengal governments. To achieve this, New Delhi will need to find a middle ground to incentivize state governments to act in a rational and restrained manner—without giving way to short-sighted and narrowly conceived political agendas—to negotiate mutually beneficial bilateral policies.
Owing to Dhaka’s emerging regional economic priorities, New Delhi should prioritize development and infrastructure partnerships in network connectivity, energy cooperation, and trade. Additionally, the central government should build coalitions with West Bengal stakeholders to address contentious issues such as water-sharing and immigration, and improve people-to-people contact between Indian and Bangladeshi citizens to sustain a meticulous balance between its domestic and foreign policy interests.
Image 1: Pradip Nath via Twitter
Image 2: Abhijit Kar Gupta via Flickr