India’s general elections are the talk of the town in Bangladesh. At no other time in the past has an election across the border generated as much interest as the one whose results will not be in before May 16. Yes, back in 1977, Bangladesh’s people, then reeling under the country’s first military dictatorship led by General Ziaur Rahman, were more amazed than shocked at the defeat of the Congress by the Janata Party at India’s first post-Emergency election. Again, in May 2011, large numbers of Bangladeshis were unhappy at the defeat of the Left Front in the West Bengal assembly elections, which brought Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress to power.
This time round though, Bangladeshis’ interest in India’s general elections is defined by a core question: Will Narendra Modi actually end up being India’s prime minister? And that question is followed quickly by another: How will a Modi government handle issues with its neighbours, especially with Bangladesh? That second question has been making the rounds since Modi served warning that all Bangladeshis who had entered India illegally must be ready to pack their bags and leave. At the government level, there has been no official reaction to Modi’s remarks. For obvious reasons, successive governments in Bangladesh have repeatedly denied any infiltration of Bangladeshis into India. Therefore, responding to Modi’s statement might only complicate matters for Dhaka at the official level. Silence is of the essence.
As far as the general run of Bangladeshi citizens is concerned, there is the worry that under a Modi dispensation, with its not so subtle emphasis on a non-secular India about to emerge, such issues as land boundary demarcation and Teesta water-sharing can only reach a more complicated zone of contention. The intriguing bit here is that suddenly Mamata Banerjee, considered responsible for the scuttling of a possible Teesta deal during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in 2011, has turned somewhat into a figure of admiration, owing to her feisty ripostes to Modi. In the innermost recesses of their souls, very large numbers of Bangladeshis entertain the hope, however misplaced it might turn out to be, that the BJP and Modi will not win enough seats in the Lok Sabha to form the next government in India. The vigorous campaigning undertaken by Priyanka Gandhi in recent days has impressed Bangladeshi observers, to a point where memories of Indira Gandhi have come alive in the country. Indira Gandhi remains a heroine for all Bangladeshis because of her support, both materially and politically, for the cause of Bangladesh’s liberation in 1971. Priyanka Gandhi is, therefore, a throwback to old times and indeed there is the faint hope that her campaigning will cause a dent in the Modi armour, enough to prevent India from slipping into the hands of the BJP and its allies.
Bangladeshis are troubled at the tragic figure that Manmohan Singh has turned into, but believe it was the people around him who led him to such a condition. P. Chidambaram has been a man much admired in Bangladesh for his erudition as well as hands-on approach to the economy. Meira Kumar as speaker of the Lok Sabha has been symbolic of woman power earned through dint of merit. Rahul Gandhi has been disappointing for many. Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, initially regarded as a sign of the future, is these days looked upon as a man who is yet to educate himself in Indian national politics.
And disappointment has also come through watching some well-known figures making a beeline for the BJP. Bappi Lahiri, whose music has inspired Bangladesh’s young artistes, shocked Bangladeshis when he joined the BJP and obtained the nomination for a Lok Sabha seat. In earlier years, Victor Banerjee and Bhupen Hazarika had caused disappointment by linking up with the BJP. The belief in Bangladesh was, and is, that artistes cannot but be secular in spirit and demeanour. Once that code appears to be broken, it is the fans’ hearts that get cracked.
A major cause of disappointment for Bangladeshis, particularly the educated elite among them, has been journalist M.J. Akbar’s entry into the BJP. Long considered one of the saner voices of liberal journalism, Akbar has, by his decision to join the BJP and at the same time call upon India’s Muslims to extend support to the party, left many Bangladeshis revisiting the old question of intellectual honesty.
For Bangladeshis in general, despite the fond hopes of many among them of an upset preventing Modi from assuming power in New Delhi, the feeling is of India being on a sure route to the politics of Hindu fundamentalism. Bangladeshi intellectuals often recall the era of Jawaharlal Nehru; and shake their heads at the thought of Modi exercising the powers India’s first and absolutely secular prime minister once used to the advantage of India and its people.
Bangladesh’s people wait for the results of India’s general elections. Like Amartya Sen, they are not comfortable with the thought that a Narendra Modi juggernaut is about to sweep into high office in Delhi. They keep their fingers crossed. In their minds, there is worry about the shape of the future of the subcontinent.
The writer is executive editor, ‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka