India’s outdated perceptions about Bangladesh prove to be counter-productive
Bangladesh is in an unusual situation in South Asia. The latest addition to the comity of states in the region, it shares borders with two different regions, the rice growing South East Asia on the one hand, and wheat growing zones from India and beyond on the other. Bangladesh is the only country which came into being after a war and defined itself through an armed struggle.
Child of regional conflict
In this struggle, Bangladesh was supported by the top regional power India, against its arch enemy, Pakistan. Thus, Bangladesh became an independent state that factored in hostilities that had existed in South Asia for long. At that point of time, India reigned supreme and of course expanded its strength and dominance in the region including Bangladesh after 1971. Thus, Bangladesh was seen by many as a historical and natural ally of India.
This argument was of course superficial. But the region is famously superficial when it comes to power analysis. Many, including India bestow semi religious attributes to relationships, when in fact they are transactional. That any relations between two states is built on mutual convenience is ignored particularly in diplomatic polemics in the region.
So, while on the (official) surface, there was great Indo-Bangla bonhomie, bilateral relations began to sour soon at the popular level. India lacked sensitivity in dealing with Bangladesh as it assumed that Pakistan was a common enemy, and that Bangladeshis would consider India's interest as their own.
In fact, it began to sour right after 1971 as Indian troops stripped several outfits of their machinery and equipment. And in a resource damaged country, Indian traders were quick to jump in and take advantage of shortages, leading to their negative branding.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman played a major role in asserting the will of the new State. It’s no secret that as a person who was born out of resistance to the domination of Delhi and Kolkata over East Bengal, he was not naturally inclined towards India. More importantly, he was ideologically freer than the “pro-India” lobby within the party.
Trying state "distancing"
It was not just Sheikh Mujib's joining the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which irked India. India's Simla Agreement with Pakistan is another example where Bangladesh had to take a back seat. In other words, every country looks after its own interest.
The problem is that in the case of India, any focus on the national interest creates a sense of "distancing" from India and its foreign policy mandarins. Thus, India has problems with its rapidly growing up neighborhood which does want to be dictated to or follow India like meek sheep.
Bangladesh playing with realities
Bangladesh accepted two realities as far as its relationship with India was concerned. One, it was impossible to ignore it given its size and strength vis-a-vis Bangladesh. Two, it is impossible to be happy with a neighbor whose sense of regional supremacy is high and its own foreign and domestic priorities dominated its neighborhood policies.
Perhaps the most known collective effort was SAARC. In this body, most South Asian countries tried to create a sense of diplomatic "equality". But, of course, India never liked it. SAARC was not a bi-lateral forum but a multi-lateral one and no issue between two countries could be brought to it. But India was not happy even with a conceptual/ hypothetical/ theoretical platform where India was on an “equal footing” with other countries. Thus, SAARC crumbled.
BIMSTEC has been patronized by India though it has little interest in the region. However, it didn't bother India as its supremacy was unchallenged. But things began to change as China rose. China, which shares borders with most South Asian countries, has come to play an important role in the region, which India considers its backyard.
China no longer polite
China was always there but was not dominant. With India, its focus was trade but the border dispute and India's emergence as US' regional proxy irked China at the political and strategic level.
With Pakistan, China is proving to be a shoulder Pakistan can lean on when bullied by India. However, it is different with Bangladesh. Publicly, India and Bangladesh are the best of friends. But there is another side to it. Without being strident, Bangladesh has leveraged its weak status to let India and China fight over it. And the benefits have gone to Bangladesh too.
The recent telephone call by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has angered India. As expected the Indian media is loud and many are seeing conspiracies resulting in India’s "the traditional friend" letting it down. A section is targeting several people close to the Bangladesh Prime Minister as agents of Pakistan. Seems some people seem desperate.
That is understandable but Bangladesh sees greater advantage in proximity to China in whatever little space it can manage as it does business with India. The telephone conversation has no official or practical value and in fact, arouses very little interest in Bangladesh, but it does in India. Bangladesh is no position to argue with India or China so it will keep the situation going by listening to both and making the best of the conflict between the two giants.