By Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee
A historic opportunity awaits India in the next few months to address its fundamental security, cooperation in the region and its larger ‘Look East Policy’. All of which can be enhanced through a strong partnership with our neighbour in the East, Bangladesh, overcoming years of suspicion. The time has come for a new approach, bold measures and out-of-the-box thinking.
An international conference in New Delhi between India and ASEAN leaders in March 2011 indicated that the region is today poised for unprecedented cooperation. Even though China’s influence and presence in ASEAN is much higher and growing even faster, there remain enough opportunities and space for simultaneous cooperation with India. That process will be facilitated through redefining our relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar, which in turn will benefit 400 million people that inhabit the entire region.
The completely free and credible elections in Bangladesh in end 2009 ushered in a government with a large mandate. It also demonstrated that given the right opportunity, the people’s choice would be peace, development and a tolerant society. Bangladesh is not a ‘basket case’ as Henry Kissinger so dismissively described it not so long ago. It is not also a ‘failed state’ like Pakistan, which for many decades kept it under its servitude. Instead it is a vibrant society where its rich language and culture and moderate Islam define its identity and nationalism. Yet, the nation is also densely populated, resource-scarce and susceptible to the frequent furies of nature. It provides a natural fit for a genuine partnership with India that is based on equity, self-respect and generosity as between friends, without insistence on ‘equal reciprocity’.
Over the years, parts of the population in Bangladesh have been influenced through Saudi money and Wahabi influence towards a more radical Islam. Their potential influence cannot be ignored, but should be recognized as a force that thrives only in times of economic difficulties. Dhaka has recently comprehensively addressed India’s core security concerns by cooperating in countering terrorism. Insurgents from India’s northeast, whose presence previous regimes flatly denied, were ferreted out and handed over.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in Jan 2010 set the stage for a new partnership. Apart from three major agreements signed it also laid out a road map and initiated an eighteen track process to address other issues.
But, decisions have a timeline and agreements take place in a political context. Just as sensible people in both countries understand the importance of genuine partnership and the economic opportunities that this will open up, there is still a sizeable community in Bangladesh that consider this a ripe issue for mobilizing anti-India sentiments. In an intensely bipartisan and divided polity, the government in power often succumbs to this pressure as elections loom. Then there are rising expectations, tendency of politicians in power to succumb to corruption over time and thus lose popular support. A time may soon come in Bangladesh when the cumulative effects of all these developments may become a serious obstacle even to agree to sensible agreements.
Dhaka is looking to a visit from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to consolidate this partnership. The time for moving forward is now. Elections to both the neighbouring Indian states, West Bengal and Assam, are in April and results are due in mid-May. Hopefully Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh will take place at the earliest, before the onset of monsoons. It is likely that negotiations on all tracks will not be completed by then. But, a few major breakthroughs and critical agreements that serve as real ‘game changers’ must be signed during this visit. What might these be?
It is suggested that these should include the vital issues of territory, water, trade and connectivity. The enclaves issue is ripe for a solution and bold political decisions in conjunction with West Bengal should resolve them. The Teesta water-sharing negotiation too is at an advanced stage and it will be enormously helpful if this is agreed by that time. Over the years river water issues have become sensitive and a major resolution will be highly positive. A sensitive issue of late between India and Bangladesh has been the very adverse trade balance, which is ten times in India’s favour. This is clearly unsustainable between friends. India can afford to have a zero-tariff regime for Bangladesh and not suffer a dent in its overall trade balance. But, if there is an apprehension that this may be misused, at least Bangladesh textile import tariffs should be eliminated. This will benefit maximum numbers of its citizens and an important constituency. Taken together these will be true game-changers in India-Bangladesh relations.
In turn these would open up the whole question of connectivity already liberalized through direct access from Bangladesh to Bhutan and Nepal. Building further on this through multiple nodes across Bangladesh will be of enormous financial benefit to its people in several substantive ways.
The time has come to build public opinion in both countries to ensure that Manmohan Singh’s visit is of historic significance to both countries.
Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee