Saturday, October 9, 2010

Indo-Bangladesh relations: the importance of perception

The Daily Star, October 9, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The excitement spun by the Bangladesh government about a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations following Sheikh Hasina's state visit to India in January is receding. The promises made by India have either been slow in coming or where given, the Indian concessions have not been properly reflected in the media, particularly in Bangladesh.

It is to Bangladesh's credit that it has made the first move towards resolving the decades old problems with India just before and during Sheikh Hasina's visit to New Delhi. First, Bangladesh handed the top ULFA extremists to India, thus unequivocally backing India on its security concerns. Second, Bangladesh accepted India's long standing demand on land transit by signing an agreement on a US1 billion soft loan for mainly infrastructure development to build roads, railway lines, improve river ports, etc not just to help inland connectivity but also between India and its north-eastern provinces. The old concept of transit that was very sensitive for Bangladesh has now been positively replaced as an issue of connectivity in which Bangladesh has been promised to become the sub-regional connectivity hub with great economic promises.

The economic reasons forwarded by India and Bangladesh on connectivity are strong. Unfortunately, in the context of Bangladesh-India relations that have suffered from lack of trust, economics cannot be the sole rationale for moving relations forward. In fact, economic rationale will fall by the way side unless the political and other substantive issues from Bangladesh side such as water sharing, trade, resolution of land boundary, demarcation of the maritime boundary are handled first because the dividends of economics are not instant. In most cases such dividends would come after years of initiatives and actions. The people of Bangladesh would not have the patience to wait particularly because Bangladesh has already met India's security concerns and on way to meet its transit needs.

For Bangladesh, the impatience is also enhanced from the nature of its politics where even foreign policy is contentious. When it comes to India, the contentious nature is more intense where the opposition BNP does not see much good in India's intentions towards Bangladesh. Although there has been a shift towards reality in Bangladesh about India with the people no longer willing to oppose India just because of the BNP stand, the perception that India is not trustworthy still persists because of past experiences. This is a very important reason why both India and Bangladesh must address the perception aspect that is deep rooted before expecting the people to believe that the relations are ready for a major thrust forward where there would be great economic dividends for both, particularly Bangladesh.

The perception factor is in fact crucial to the outcome of what the Bangladesh-India relations promises following Sheikh Hasina's historic visit. On the Indian side, there has been a clearly move in perception about Bangladesh; that Bangladesh is genuinely interested in improvement of bilateral relations and that it has given India more than it expected on the security concerns. By unequivocally agreeing in the Joint Communiqué to support India's Security Council candidature, Bangladesh has accepted India as the regional power to calm past Indian concerns. On connectivity, Bangladesh has shown the willingness to let its territory be used for India's interests.

The positive Indian perception about Bangladesh is acknowledged in Bangladesh but differently. The perception that is growing in Bangladesh is that it has given to Indian demands without reciprocal gestures. The connectivity issue has not been explained in Bangladesh in a transparent manner. Hence public opinion in Bangladesh may not remain optimistic for long for the economic dividends to accrue and may move towards the BNP. Even within the AL, there is a certain amount of restlessness at India's inability to respond so far on issues of concern to Bangladesh, the promises to do so in the Joint Communiqué signed during Sheikh Hasina's visit notwithstanding. The window of opportunity may thus not remain open for too long.

A group of us who had the opportunity to interact at important levels in New Delhi have returned with positive impression about Indian intentions, something not easy to perceive from Bangladesh. At the same time, we found on the Indian side a lack of proper awareness of politics and perception in Bangladesh. The Indians are convinced that economics would remove the negative perception and take Bangladesh-India relations forward on sustainable basis where Bangladesh, by becoming the sub-regional connectivity hub, would reap the benefits of cooperation with India. Such a perception fails to consider the political divisiveness in Bangladesh where it does not have the luxury to wait for economics to launch bilateral relations; where delay would be playing into the hands of the opposition that has already asked for scratching of all agreements signed during Sheikh Hasina's visit.

The forward movement of relations would now depend a great deal on the return visit of the Indian Prime Minister that is expected to take place early next year. The Indian Prime Minister must make major concessions on transboundary waters where an accord on the Teesta would be crucial. The Issue of land border demarcation that has been held up for lack of political will on Indian side and has contributed greatly to negative perception about India must be resolved during this important visit. The demarcation of maritime boundary is difficult but India must show positive attitude to negotiate on a basis of mutual benefit because Bangladesh's economic future is largely dependent on a fair settlement of the issue.

There must also be concession on trade where Bangladesh does not expect the huge gap to be reduced dramatically. It does however expect India to dismantle the tariff and NTBs to increase Bangladesh's exports to India. After our New Delhi visit, I had a chance conversation with a top executive of an important business chamber. I failed to convince him about India's intentions for improvement of relations, particularly in making Bangladesh the sub-regional connectivity hub. Individuals like him have a major role in changing perception and such individuals would be interested only if India would unilaterally lower its trade barriers to show the political will for friendly relations with Bangladesh. For a world economic power, Indian attitude on trade has contributed largely to the negative perception. Allowing Bangladesh even the best opportunity of a non-reciprocal tariff free trade regime would not even scratch India adversely but could lead to a sea change in the negative perception in Bangladesh.

For improvement of relations the ball is now squarely in Indian court with a very short time span to change perception in Bangladesh that is crucial to forward movement. The visit of the Indian Prime Minister could determine which direction relations go. In fact, if India cannot make major concessions on Bangladesh's needs and demands then his visit would be futile.

There is a postscript on perception and reality. Bangladesh is convinced that on the border, Bangladeshis are being indiscriminately killed by BSF. We were told in New Delhi that 70% of those killed are Indians and all are related to failed smuggling negotiations!

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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