M. Serajul Islam
The Daily Star, August 14th.; 2010
THERE seems to be mixed feelings about the Indian Finance Minister's recent visit to Bangladesh, a lot of it of course coming down party lines. Last time, when he was here, he by-passed a request from the Leader of the Opposition for a meeting and instead found time to meet the controversial General Moyeen who during his stranglehold on power under the Caretaker Government had openly boasted that he would resolve all outstanding problems with India on the eve of a visit he undertook to New Delhi at that time. Although Bangladeshis are easily susceptible to conspiracy theories and the opposition BNP not inclined too see anything good in India, Pranab Mukherjee on his part has given some genuine encouragement to the conspiracy prone Bangladeshis and the BNP. This time too there was no meeting with Khaleda Zia but he reportedly found time during his 4 hours' stay in Dhaka for another controversial meeting with three top AL leaders who did not find Cabinet berths on issue of loyalty to the party leader.
There are few other issues about the visit that have caused a few eyebrows to be raised. The news about the visit was released to the media by the Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister, after a meeting he chaired with stakeholders on the progress of the agreements signed and Joint Communiqué issued during the Prime Minister's visit to India. He said that the Indian Finance Minister would be visiting Dhaka to witness the signing of the US $1 billion credit promised by India during Sheikh Hasina's visit. Subsequently, the Indian High Commission released a press statement where it was mentioned that Pranab Mukherjee would be coming to Dhaka on an invitation of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni. The Foreign Ministry came out with its own statement but after that of the Indian High Commission. There seems to be confusion in Bangladesh about who to be given the charge to deal with Bangladesh-India relations.
In the midst of the media campaign by the Foreign Minister after the Prime Minister's visit, it was mentioned that the Indian Prime Minister would undertake his return visit to Bangladesh within six months of Sheikh Hasina's visit. This is not going to happen. During this period, after the initial euphoria during which the Foreign Minister had described Sheikh Hasina's visit as a watershed in Bangladesh-India relations died down, little was said in the media about follow up action on the visit. In fact, the Bangladesh Commerce Minister expressed his disappointment about progress on the trade sector, blaming Indian bureaucracy for it. The sharing of the water of Teesta that some had thought would be signed soon after the visit of the Prime Minister is still a distant possibility. Death of Bangladeshis on the Bangladesh-India border at the hands of the BSF have become a permanent feature of tension where Bangladesh's repeated pleas to India have so far gone unattended. In fact, the great hopes that the Government had risen after Sheikh Hasina's visit seemed to have stalled for reasons that have not been explained by anyone.
There was no announced agenda for discussion at the meetings that Pranab Mukherjee had in Dhaka. The Foreign Ministry statement mentioned that the Indian Minister would discuss bilateral issues with Bangladesh Foreign Ministers. The visit was however too short for any meaningful discussion on bilateral issues. In fact, very little of it was discussed. Overtly, the two sides reflected on the US$ 1 billion loan as the only reason for the visit. The presence of a good number of Ministers during the signing ceremony left little doubt that the Bangladesh side was eager to make a public demonstration of the importance of the loan. Pranab Mukherjee highlighted the loan as a soft one given at 1.75% interest repayable in 25 years, stressing that it is the largest amount loaned by India to any country. He said that the loan has been extended keeping Bangladesh's interest in mind.
The BNP has rejected outright the offer of loan with very hard-hitting criticisms. Khaleda Zia has asked it to be scrapped. This notwithstanding, there are few issues about the loan that have not been highlighted by the Government. First, it is a supplier's credit and thus serving the interest of it where Bangladesh would be obliged to spend the money for purchase of goods and items from India and would not be allowed to buy these at competitive prices in the international market. Second, Bangladesh would borrow the money from an Indian bank whereas it has that money and more in excess liquidity in the market from foreign remittance. Although the rate of interest would be higher in borrowing the money from internal sources but the advantages of buying goods and services from untied sources and charges from other details of the agreement, which have not been spelt out, could outweigh the advantages on low interest rate. Finally, the money would be spent for those infrastructures that would allow India's transit to its northeast. In other words, India would be giving the loan for its own interest where Bangladesh would be a collateral beneficiary but by playing away in the process, its only bargaining chip with India.
Little information has been made known on what transpired in the meeting with the Prime Minister. Pranab Mukherjee has close relations with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. There is reason to believe that he may have had few suggestions and advice for her on state of politics in Bangladesh where things are fluid over the trial of the war criminals and the constitutional amendments. The Foreign Minister has written the postscript to the visit. In a briefing, she highlighted the issue of connectivity that is a new parlance for the unpopular transit suggesting that through the US $1 billion loan and India's assurance of transit to Nepal and Bhutan, Bangladesh would become a regional hub of connectivity. It would be good to think that way. History of Bangladesh-India relations and India's relations with its neighbours make it hard to accept that India would be magnanimous to help Bangladesh become a regional hub of connectivity. For a small incentive of doing business with Nepal, Bhutan and northeast India, Bangladesh would give India what it always wanted; a free access between its mainland and northeast. Bangladesh has unilaterally decided against being the big lump in the Indian throat simply for the assurance of cooperation in water and trade sectors but without reference to the maritime boundary demarcation and other outstanding issues.
It is in Bangladesh's interest to have good relations with India. Bangladesh's 160 million people make it essential for India to ensure Bangladesh's stability for its own security. India should know too well that many Bangladeshis have serious reservations about India and that AL's 3/4th majority is only in the parliament. In the country, the support among the people is divided between the AL and the BNP almost in the same proportion. India could have played a positive role by using its present influence over the government to urge it to talk to the opposition for making improvements in Bangladesh-India relations sustainable. Pranab Mukherjee himself could have done his part by meeting the leader of the opposition and briefed her on his visit and the loan India has offered. Unfortunately, he did not do so and instead by his two visits to Bangladesh, he has inserted a wedge into the existing animosities between the BNP and the AL and has strengthened the “India factor” in keeping the two divided.
The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director in the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.