The upcoming Bangladeshi general election, scheduled for January 7, 2024, has attracted considerable international attention. Some great and regional powers, including the United States of America (USA), the European Union (EU), Russia, and China, have reacted to the approaching election and related upsurge in political activities in Bangladesh per their interests. Intriguingly, India, the state with the most significant geopolitical stake in Bangladesh, had refrained from expressing its position on the issue until recently. The issue of Bangladesh’s forthcoming election surfaced during a recent high-level bilateral dialogue between the USA and India, and in its aftermath, India finally made its official position on the issue known. This is a significant development for the current Bangladeshi political dynamics.
The USA, apparently concerned with alleged democratic backsliding in Bangladesh and the expansion of the Sino–Bangla partnership, has adopted a hard-line stance on the issue of the coming election in Bangladesh. It has repeatedly insisted on the holding of a ‘free and fair’ election and pledged to impose visa restrictions on individuals who would be complicit in or responsible for undermining the democratic electoral process in Bangladesh. The EU has decided not to send a full-fledged electoral observation team during the upcoming election. On the other hand, Russia has criticized the US actions and accused Washington of interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.
Similarly, China has termed the election an internal affair of Bangladesh and opposed external interference in Bangladesh.Moreover, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen has recently remarked that his country would like to see the approaching Bangladeshi election to be held as per the constitution.
However, India, in contrast with its clear stances during the 2014 and 2018 general elections, had maintained an ambiguous stance towards the Bangladeshi election until the recent 5th Annual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between the USA and India held on 10 November 2023. The format was established in 2018 to strengthen the growing US–Indian strategic partnership, and since then, it has been held every year. The foreign and defense ministers of both countries participate in these meetings. During the recent meeting held in New Delhi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh and discussed a wide range of issues relevant to the US–Indian relations, including Bangladesh.
Interestingly, the US Department of State summarized the discussions during the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, but it did not mention Bangladesh. However, during a press briefing following the dialogue, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra remarked that India had clearly shared its perspectives on the impending Bangladeshi election during the meeting. According to India’s top foreign policy bureaucrat, elections are an internal affair of Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi people should decide their future.
Moreover, he expressed India’s respect for the democratic process in Bangladesh and pledged continued Indian support for Bangladesh’s vision of a stable, peaceful, and progressive nation. Through this statement, New Delhi has made it clear that it does not support external interference concerning the coming election in Bangladesh.
Upon the expression of the Indian position, several conclusions can be drawn.
First, the Indian ambiguity towards the upcoming election in Bangladesh had generated various misinterpretations and controversies. For instance, Indian daily newspaper The Telegraph reported in August 2023 that India had forwarded a number of preconditions to Bangladesh for the forthcoming election, including the holding of a ‘free and fair’ election, the purge of pro-Chinese and pro-Islamist elements from the incumbent Bangladesh Awami League, and the nomination of popular and non-communal candidates. This would have marked a significant departure from the traditional Indian position vis-à-vis Bangladesh and aligned the Indian stance with the US one. However, it would have also constituted a blatant interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh on India’s part. By making its position on Bangladesh clear, India has now put a decisive end to such unsubstantiated rumors.
Second, after the Indian statement on the approaching Bangladeshi election, it is evident there is a clear division among the great and regional powers on the issue of the upcoming election in Bangladesh. The USA, and to a lesser extent, the EU, are directly interfering in Bangladesh's internal affairs by exerting pressure on the Bangladeshi government concerning the election. On the other hand, Russia, China, and now India have expressed their clear opposition to such external interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. Interestingly, despite their strategic competition in Bangladesh and beyond, Beijing and New Delhi have expressed similar stances on the forthcoming Bangladeshi election.
Third, the USA and India have built up a robust strategic partnership over the previous two decades. India, the USA, Japan, and Australia are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). Indian political, diplomatic, and military ties with the USA are expanding rapidly, and the USA has recently replaced China as India's largest trading partner. However, there have been disagreements between Washington and New Delhi over the outcomes of the 2014 and 2018 general elections in Bangladesh, and it appears that the situation is being replicated again. Taking into account the geopolitical importance of India for the USA owing to the intensifying US–Chinese geopolitical rivalry, there are possibilities that the USA may soften its stance on the approaching Bangladeshi election to avoid a spat with India.
Finally, national elections constitute the internal affairs of states, and international law stipulates that states should refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other states. This principle is enshrined in Article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations (UN), the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States (adopted in 1970), the Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention and Interference in the Internal Affairs of States (adopted in 1981), and several rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). So, by terming the impending election as an internal affair of Bangladesh, India has abided by the international legal principles of non-interference and non-intervention.
Therefore, India's position on the upcoming election in Bangladesh is consistent with its friendly and good-neighbourly relations with Bangladesh, its national interests, and international legal principles. Elections are an internal affair of Bangladesh, and only the Bangladeshi people have the right to decide their future. Therefore, other great powers should similarly respect Bangladesh’s sovereignty and refrain from interfering in the impending Bangladeshi election.
Shoumik Malhotra is a