Saturday, November 21, 2009

Challenges for Sheikh Hasina

THE Indian Foreign Secretary's visit ended positively for a number of reasons. She was upbeat about the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India next month. The fact that Nirupama Rao found time to meet Khaleda Zia and refrained from calling on the Army Chief that her predecessor had done added to the positive tone of her visit.

Clearly the Indian foreign secretary's visit was not intended to be one of substance. The Indian Foreign Secretary held official talks with her Bangladeshi counterpart. She also met Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and paid a courtesy call on the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She also called on Khaleda Zia, the Chairperson of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. She did not give any reaction to the media except telling them that her visit was “significant” during which issues were discussed ahead of Sheikh Hasina's visit to India that she termed would be a “very important one”.

The Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary addressed the media in depth. He said that Sheikh Hasina would start her three-day official trip on 19th December, flying to New Delhi from Copenhagen after attending the UN sponsored Conference on Climate Change. She will hold official talks that day with the Indian Prime Minister. She will also visit Ajmer Sharif and Kolkata. The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary said that three agreements would be signed during the visit related to legal matters in dealing with criminals and criminal activities. The Foreign Secretary hinted at an agreement on “mutual transit facilities” without giving details and also stated that a draft would be kept ready for agreement on sharing of Teesta waters but did not say for sure whether it would be signed. He also said that India agreed to allow Bangladesh rail transit to Nepal following up on the land connectivity it had agreed to give during the visit of the Bangladesh Foreign Minister. Bangladesh Foreign Secretary also spoke of the need to remove “cobwebs” in Bangladesh-India relations to understand each other's position in a transparent manner so as to make joint efforts to resolve them.

The Foreign Secretaries, their upbeat stance notwithstanding, side-tracked some of the major issues that have stood in the way of Bangladesh-India relations developing into a mutually beneficial one as geopolitical realities should have dictated. Bangladesh's concerns over sharing of the waters of the common rivers; demarcation of the maritime boundary; trade imbalance and on the Indian side, the issue of land transit (now being called connectivity), security were not addressed in the meeting of the two top diplomats as priority agenda items for the Bangladesh-India summit level talks. This leaves doubt whether any agreement would be reached on such vital issues when Sheikh Hasina goes to New Delhi. A senior Foreign Ministry official also told the media that agreements on reducing the trade gap and on land boundary issues were also unlikely during Sheikh Hasina's visit.

Expectations have been high in Bangladesh following AL's massive election victory and the return of Congress in India with an equally strong mandate that Bangladesh and India would resolve some of their longstanding issues given the historical close relationship between the two ruling political parties. The visit of the Indian Foreign Minister and the Indian Foreign Secretary in February and April this year, however, raised questions instead of raising optimism. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister's visit in October also did not focus on the major issues. The talks between the two foreign secretaries also have not given much cause for hope because the issues they have discussed in preparation for Sheikh Hasina's visit have not focused on those that have held up friendly relations between the two countries for nearly four decades. In fact, the main obstacle that has held up bilateral relations to grow in strength, namely the negative mindset on either side, is coming into play once again for reasons that are hard to understand as both sides seem inclined towards putting into the back seat the major contentious issues.

Neither side however gains anything by keeping the major issues unresolved. There are in fact no “cobwebs” in Bangladesh-India bilateral relations because the unresolved issues are as transparent as daylight where both sides know that the “cobwebs” are there because of the lack of political will to deal with them. Sheikh Hasina should use her visit to India to appeal to her hosts for a change in the Indian mindset. In Manmohon Singh, India has a leader who has the vision to rise above the negative mindset and is capable of acting with vision that does justice to India's status as a regional leader in world politics. It is to him that Sehikh Hasina must register the issues of water sharing, trade, Tipaimukh, harassment over the issue of illegal migrants, and the maritime boundary.

Sheikh Hasina must also meet Sonia Gandhi for her support because her influence on the incumbent government is unquestioned. While meeting her, she should keep in mind that one of the few Indian leaders who tried to improve Bangladesh-India relations without considering reciprocity was Rajiv Gandhi. He made a historic visit to the cyclone-devastated Urichar to show solidarity with Bangladesh at times of distress. Rahul Gandhi whose importance in the ruling party is second to none should be another politician that Sheikh Hasina should meet. Recently, Rahul Gandhi has stated his opposition to river linking projects in India, an issue with which Indian diplomats and bureaucrats have kept Bangladesh on the tenterhooks. She should thank him for that stand to get a commitment from India against river linking which would help brighten the gloomy background of Bangladesh-India relations.

The signing of the three agreements on the table would hardly make Sheikh Hasina's visit a success. Its success would be determined by what commitment she can get on the Tipaimukh issue that many in Bangladesh believe would be disastrous for the country; on sharing of the water of the common rivers where abandoning the river linking idea by India would help the cause of the visit; on stopping the Indian campaign about 20 million illegal Bangladeshis; on giving Bangladesh better trade deal; and assurance to negotiate on the maritime boundary fairly. India could accommodate all these without causing its national interests any harm. To Bangladesh, these commitments would mean a major breakthrough in achieving its national interests. These commitments would also allow Bangladesh to follow up positively on Indian connectivity request, security concerns, and use of Chittagong port.

The question now is will Sheikh Hasina be able to show the political will needed to make her visit a watershed in Bangladesh-India relations if India shows the wisdom to so do? She may not because her greatest drawback in succeeding with her forthcoming trip to India will be in the nature of the country's domestic politics. The massive majority with which the AL won the last election notwithstanding, India knows too well that without a clear indication of bipartisanship from Bangladesh, any concession that it would choose to make would be opposed by the opposition and any reciprocal gesture that Bangladesh makes would be impossible to implement. At this stage, the bipartisanship necessary to convince India is an unimaginable proposition. Therefore the “cobwebs” may linger on the canvas of Bangladesh-India relations a little while longer and Sheikh Hasina's visit may be just another one made by a Bangladesh Prime Minister to India.

Published in The Daily Star, November 22, 2009

1 comment:

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