Research Projects

Bangladesh-India Relations and Regionalism in South Asia: A Perspective from Political Elites in Bangladesh

East Asia Study Center completed a project on Bangladesh-India Relations and Regionalism in South Asia: A Perspective from Political Elites in Bangladesh in the period of August 2013- February 2014. Notably, the research project was supported by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), New Delhi. The key questions that have guided the research project include: How can the role of the political elites in Bangladesh foreign policy be theorized? How and by whom have policies and decision-making processes regarding India and regional cooperation been shaped in Bangladesh? What factors do determine their perceptions about policies regarding India and South Asian regional integration? What is Bangladesh’s perspective about South Asian regional integration? Is this perspective shared by the political elites in the country? How have the political elites in Bangladesh influenced foreign policy making process? There were three major components of the study, i.e. i) workshop ii) literature survey and iii) field survey.

It is pertinent to note that an inception workshop on the research project titled ‘Bangladesh-India Relations and Regionalism in South Asia: A Perspective from the Political Elites in Bangladesh’ was held on the 31st August, 2013 at the special seminar room of Nabab Nawab Ali Chowdhury Senate Building, University of Dhaka. The program was organized by the East Asia Study Center at the University of Dhaka and supported by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS). The objective of the workshop was to exchange ideas with the resource persons in this field in order to enrich the research process. Professor Delwar Hossain, PhD, coordinator of the research project, moderated the workshop which was graced with presence by resource persons namely Ambassador Ashfaqur Rahman, Professor Dr. Abdur Rob Khan and Brigadier General (retd.) M. Sakhawat Hossain, ndc, psc.

During the workshop, Professor Hossain argues that ‘a lot of discussions are held in Bangladesh with regard to foreign policy but no comprehensive research is done in this field. There is familiarity with the two aspects namely Bangladesh-India relations and regionalism in South Asia but there is a dearth of publications on this from Bangladesh perspective. Under the current Bangladesh regime a lot of initiatives were taken to take the relations with India a few steps forward but the incidents that took place in 2012 came as a feedback.A key area in the research project is to establish a conceptual framework where two variants are important namely the decision making process and understanding political elites. Decision making process is crucial as it has direct implications in relations between states. It is necessary to know the decision making structure which will help in analyzing the model which is in work’.

Sakhawat Hossain, a resource person of the workshop, however points out that ‘From Bangladesh perspective, extent of orientation towards India changes with regime change…Political elites of India mostly derive from northern parts who are concerned about Pakistan solely. They are not really bothered about Bangladesh. Bangladesh has not showed consistency in cultivating relations with India or other regional countries. Long term vision is required…In order to have a consistent policy it is indeed crucial to explore the decision making process and understand the political elites’.

Professor Dr. Abdur Rob Khan argues that‘it is necessary to know how India looks at Bangladesh…It will be interesting to identify political elites. Elites are makers, movers and shakers of policy formulations’. Ambassador Ashfaqur Rahman, however also points out the inconsistency in Bangladesh-India relations which is mainly regime centric. Ambassador Rahman also claims that ‘Elite groups do not want a change in status quo. After the establishment of SAARC in 1985, it gained success in establishing people to people connectivity in the region. In government level, states need to work hand in hand focusing on taking sustainable steps’.

From the literature survey, the study found that there are number of challenges and potentials for bilateral cooperation between India and Bangladesh. These are also largely related to the regional cooperation framework in South Asia. Contemporary regional cooperation in South Asia widely considered a diplomatic success of Bangladesh. As far as SAARC is concerned Bangladesh is the pioneer of regional cooperation back in the late 1970s. Since 1977, the Bangladesh under President Ziaur Rahman started working on the idea of an ASEAN-like organization in South Asia. In this context, Bangladesh-India relations played crucial role to promote regional cooperation in the region. Notably, political elites in Bangladesh, in this regard had a pivotal role. For instance, during his visit to India in December 1977, Ziaur Rahman discussed the issue of regional cooperation with the new Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai. President Ziaur Rahman had also informally discussed this idea with the leaders of the South Asian countries during the Commonwealth Summit in Lusaka (1979) and Non-Aligned Summit in Havana (1979) (Dash 1996). Furthermore, The first concrete proposal for establishing a framework for regional cooperation in South Asia was made by the late president of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rahman, on May 2, 1980.

The last component of the study, field survey reveals that as far as Bangladesh foreign policy is concerned, the decision making process is dominated by political elites from the office of the Prime Minister and ruling party leadership. Political elites also think that domestic inputs such as public opinion, interest groups, business community have limited role as drivers behind foreign policy making. It demonstrates that the process is centralized and governmentalized with lesser space for diverse actors and interests.