By Rajeev Sharma
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Bangladesh in September 2011. External Affairs Minister S M Krishna will be in Bangladesh on July 6 on a bilateral visit which will be preparatory in nature to pave the way for a successful prime ministerial visit. In turn, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao prepared a solid ground for Krishna’s Bangladesh visit when she visited Dhaka on June 6-7. These frequent high-level exchanges between the two neighbours are important as Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations have been going from strength to strength ever since Sheikh Hasina started her second prime ministerial innings on January 6, 2009.
India must help Bangladesh urgently to strengthen the democratic process in the country and help the Awami League government fight extremist and terrorist groups which threaten to convert Bangladesh into a `Taliban country`, a development which has grave consequences for India and the region as a whole. Bangladesh is one of India’s closest neighbours where it has deep strategic interests in terms of peace and stability of the region.
Timing is of great essence to the India-Bangladesh dynamics in the present context. The Awami League government, led by Sheikh Hasina, extended a hand of friendship soon after it took over the reins of Bangladesh early last year. Despite strong opposition from within the country, Hasina came to New Delhi with great expectations from her big neighbour. India reciprocated in equal measure when it came to promises. Now India must fulfill those promises without losing much time. A delay in doing so or a perceived in delay could derail the new found bon homie between Dhaka and New Delhi. This is a win-win situation for both the countries and the responsibility for making it happen rests squarely with India, being the dominant power in the region.
The most befitting time to reconnect with Bangladesh, its leadership and people would be when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh goes to Dhaka on a return visit in September this year. Manmohan Singh must keep his word that he would do everything possible to “remain beside Bangladesh for a stable and sustainable democracy“. Such sentiments need to be affirmed by real action on some of the pending issues between the two countries. Nirupama Rao’s recent visit to lay the groundwork for the prime ministerial visit was a sincere effort to pave the way for such a reconnect. But bureaucratic delays must not push the pause button and the engagement process must be strengthened and taken to its logical conclusion of making Bangladesh a valuable partner in India’s economic progress and broader relationship with its neighbours.
The most appropriate place to begin this process is in the joint communiqué signed by both the countries January last when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi to a rousing welcome. The series of agreements signed between both the countries since then reflect India’s stand. But knowing the kind of domestic pressures the Sheikh Hasina government is likely to face from parties and groups opposed to her, mostly right wing, India must walk the extra mile to assuage fears and affirm confidence among the people of Bangladesh about the benign and benevolent objectives of India in befriending Bangladesh.
India occupies a central place in the internal politics of Bangladesh. The bitter rivals of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, have built their political fortunes on supporting extremist elements and by opposing India at all levels. In a way, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is swimming against the tide in building bridges with India. The country is scheduled to go to elections in 2013 and with such a short time left, Hasina’s overtures, unless met substantially by India, could prove to be her undoing as far as her political life is concerned. India must ensure that Sheikh Hasina’s position is not compromised.
To a large extent, the key rests with India, more specifically the joint communiqué and its speedy implementation. The following actions could help in furthering India’s strategic interests in Bangladesh and its neighbourhood. Two most important issues for Bangladesh are the sharing of Teesta River and a transit facility for India through Bangladesh to north-east. Teesta River is a lifeline for vast stretch of farmlands and habitation in Bangladesh and over the years its many tributaries and streams have dried up causing immense misery to farmers and others in Bangladesh. The problem becomes acute in the winter months where the reduced flow in the main river leaves Bangladesh literally high and dry. India must therefore give due priority to resolving these two issues at the earliest, preferably before the prime ministerial visit.
Likewise, India needs to rethink on its Line of Credit policy. The rate of interest must be marginal and the loan itself should preferably be converted into a grant. Both the countries also need to reduce the bilateral trade gap. In 2009 India’s exports to Bangladesh were approximately $3 billion as against Bangladesh’s exports of $280 million. This gap can be effectively plugged if India were to do away with tariff and quota barriers. Not that there is no desire on the Indian side to iron out differences with Bangladesh and set the bilateral relationship on an even keel, and on a northern trajectory. The recent visit of the Foreign Secretary and the upcoming visit of the Prime Minister are clear signals of India’s deep and abiding interest in Bangladesh’s future as a progressive nation.
Pakistan and China will not like it but India-Bangladesh relations today are presently on a high after a gap of over a decade. If things continue at the present pace, the two South Asian neighbours, which were at loggerheads during the Khaleda Zia regime (2001-06), are poised for a strategic synergy in the next couple of years. This synergy may well be far more fruitful than a non-existent Indo-Bangladesh strategic partnership, a much-abused terminology in diplomatic practices the world over these days.
Ever since Sheikh Hasina won the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh on December 28, 2008 and assumed office of Prime Minister on January 6, 2009 for the second time (after her first tenure from 1996 to 2001), things have been looking up for Indo-Bangla relations from Indian point of view. The bilateral relations between New Delhi and Dhaka had touched rock bottom during the second tenure of the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (2001-06), the time when Islamic radicalists found a new haven in Bangladesh in the post 9/11 world.
Begum Zia’s second tenure was the worst for Indo-Bangla ties in decades. Her government was virtually a proxy of Islamabad and the ISI. In fact the Pakistani spy agency ISI was never more powerful in this country than Begum Zia’s second tenure as PM. This was also the time when China sank its teeth deeper into the Bangladesh pie.
Both Pakistan and China have one man to blame the present honeymoon between India and Bangladesh: Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. When Mukherjee was given Finance (on his own demand) in the UPA II, there was consternation in the Hasina government at all levels. Bangladeshi diplomats sent SOS messages to their MEA counterparts on why and how S M Krishna could not deliver whereas Mukherjee was a runaway success and the biggest Confidence Building Measure (CBM) between India and Bangladesh. Such is the level of synergy and proximity between Sheikh Hasina and Mukherjee that the two have family ties. In fact when Mukherjee took over as Finance Minister, Hasina set aside all protocol and rang him up to congratulate him. After Hasina had finished there was a long list of the Hasina household waiting to congratulate Mukherjee – and the links went on to the teenagers.