By Delwar Hossain
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made an official visit to Bangladesh as her maiden standalone overseas tour from 25 to 27 June, 2014 – which was termed by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) as “extremely fruitful and satisfying.” The spokesperson of the MEA added that Swaraj was returning with an understanding that “it is an excellent beginning in addressing each others’ concerns and work together with the spirit of good neighbourliness.” It was one of the rare comprehensive visits by any Indian External Affairs Minister to Bangladesh.
There was an extraordinary effort to reach out to the people of Bangladesh. Swaraj held a series of meetings with the top leadership in Bangladesh including the President Abdul Hamid, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Leader of the Opposition, Raushan Ershad, and the former leader of the opposition and the President of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, and held delegation-level talks with her Bangladeshi counterpart A. H. Mahmud Ali. Her meeting with Khaleda Zia has been a notable event considering the troubled nature of domestic politics in Bangladesh.
Despite her high profile official meetings and engagement, what has become extremely significant during her visit was her speech to the civil society audience organised by the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS). It drew attention of the elite across the sections of society in Bangladesh. She was able to communicate with the people about the new Indian government’s view on Bangladesh. The people of Bangladesh have enormous interests about the perspectives and strategies of the new Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Quite rightly so the current Bangladesh government has worked with India’s Dr. Manmohan Singh administration in its last term when both Dhaka and New Delhi went an extra mile to reduce gaps and embark upon new and bold initiatives to strengthen bilateral relations. The people of Bangladesh want to see a smooth journey to stronger ties between the two nations based on the existing friendly relations.
Political circles in Bangladesh are sharply divided on the impact of Sushma Swaraj’s visit on domestic politics of the country. Experts and activists leaning towards the opposition parties termed the visit as a paradigm shift in India’s role in the matrix of political forces in Bangladesh. One analyst argued that the visit outlined the parameters within which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government will conduct bilateral relations with Bangladesh. It is marked by a major step away from the way the Congress did. He further adds that New Delhi will not play any favorites and relations will be between country-to-country and government-to-government.
Conversely, pro-government elites claim that the visit was hugely positive for the current government. The emphasis on government-to-government relations or focus on building strong institutions and promoting a culture of tolerance, inclusion and respect for differences strengthen the ruling political regime’s positions. More importantly, in the realm of foreign policy it is not the priority of any government to influence domestic politics for the sake of domestic politics. Instead, it is national interests that dictate terms. Therefore, the visit rightly prioritised on the issue of boosting bilateral ties where both the government and the opposition have stakes.
Swaraj’s speech on “India-Bangladesh Relations: A Framework for Cooperation” at the BIISS gathering has been widely discussed in Bangladesh’s civil society. In her speech, Swaraj emphasised on comprehensive and equitable partnership, mutually beneficial relations, youth development and youth-led development, people–to-people to contact, and inter-linkages to move forward in South Asia. She referred to the fact that both India and Bangladesh shed blood together in 1971 and she did not forget to mention Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the architect of Bangladesh. The Minister enthralled the audience in Dhaka as she spoke, “I come to Bangladesh with a message of friendship and goodwill from the newly elected Government in India. I come with the goal of enhancing our relationship and mutual understanding. I come with the belief that the potential of our partnership is vast. I come with the faith that the people of both our countries desire and deserve closer relations and concrete results…. Our desire is that India and Bangladesh should flourish together as two equal partners. We share not just our past but also our future.”
It is less than a month since Swaraj visited Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the two nations witnessed another game changing moment in their bilateral relations when a verdict from the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based in The Hague was delivered on 7 July 2014. The verdict resolved the long standing maritime dispute between Dhaka and New Delhi. The sharing of the disputed maritime region has been the essence of the verdict which both the nations have already identified as a new step towards building strong partnership between the two countries. However, a section of people in Bangladesh have been out to malign the verdict by raising the issue of the South Talpatti Island. They argue that Bangladesh has lost its claim on this historic island that was quickly dismissed by the maritime law experts in the country. Following Swaraj’s visit, the PCA verdict on maritime boundary dispute is another milestone in consolidating Bangladesh-India bilateral relations.
Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University