Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bangladesh-India relations: astrology versus diplomacy

The Independent
Anniversary Issue
November, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni is certain that the agreement on the Teesta will be signed while the present Government is in office. When pressed for a specific date at the press conference where she expressed her view, she said she is not an astrologer. It appeared like she was feeling sorry for herself that she was not one because if she was one, she would have predicted the timing correctly. In the evening before the Indian Prime Minister arrived in Dhaka, she was more confident about the Teesta agreement and had predicted confidently like an astrologer that it would be signed during the visit.

It was not. That led Bangladesh to “withdraw” the offer of land transit. Like a pack of cards, the great expectations that the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s Advisers had built since the visit of Sheikh Hasina to New Delhi in January, 2010, fell apart. In the heat of the moment, the FM’s categorical statement about the Teesta agreement was forgotten. It was also forgotten that few hours before her surprising statement; the Indian FS had told the media that as Mamata Banarjee was unhappy, New Delhi was withdrawing the Teesta deal from the table.

Quite clearly, the FM did not appear to know how the Indians negotiate for after Ranjan Mathai statement to the media, the issue of Teesta was closed. If she needed to hear from the horse’s mouth, she should have called the Indian Foreign Minister that would have saved her and the Government serious embarrassment.

Our FM would have no regrets about not being an astrologer if she only knew about the Ministry she heads. She heads a Ministry where trained diplomats can often predict events almost like an astrologer. In fact diplomacy is the art of predicting future course of events, sometimes with more certainty than the astrologer. If our negotiators had conducted negotiations with India professionally with trained diplomats showing the way, they would have achieved the results they predicted after our Prime Minister had taken great political risks to make the first moves for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.

Ironically, the negotiators who led our talks with India by largely ignoring the Foreign Ministry came back to the latter when the Indians withdrew the Teesta agreement. The Foreign Secretary was given the task to call the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Ministry to communicate to the Indians that Bangladesh would take back the land transit agreement in retaliation for India’s withdrawal of the Teesta deal.

The summoning of the Indian High Commissioner was a showdown of sorts. It was also a diplomatic faux pas as it was done while the Indian Prime Minister was in the city for a visit that we trumpeted would move our bilateral relations to a new level with India making the reciprocal gestures to Sheikh Hasina’s support on security, grant of land transit and offer of our sea ports.

The Teesta-land transit showdown notwithstanding, our side claimed the visit of Manmohon Singh was a “big success”. Dipu Moni claimed so and so did Dr. Gowhar Rizvi. Against their claims, Indian media blamed its leaders for not doing enough for the visit to end on a disappointing note. One of India’s most respected retired diplomats Muchkund Dubey, former Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner to Bangladesh, wrote an article in The Daily Star headlined “India-Bangladesh relations: failure of leadership on the Indian side” where the title itself suggests that the visit of the Indian Prime Minister was a failure.

Our negotiating should read this article to get over the state of denial over the visit. He wrote: “The attitude of most of Indian political leaders, senior officials, business magnates and strategic thinkers towards Bangladesh has been one of disdain and apathy.” He further wrote that India’s Pak-centric politicians, senior officials, journalists and analysts could, by their ineptness and negligence, force Bangladesh to become like Pakistan although it is no means anything like Pakistan yet.

Our negotiators believed in the Indians’ sincerity and showed no signs of awareness of the concerns that Muchkund Dubey expressed. In fact, they expressed anger on anyone who was critical of the Indians when they conducted the talks. They were busy highlighting the virtues of the Indians and refused to take a look at India in the context of their “disdain and apathy” to Bangladesh’s legitimate demands on water, maritime boundary, land border, trade and the rest.

In their enthusiasm to highlight Indian virtues, they made particular mention of the Indian loan of US$ 1 billion without clarifying that almost all of it would be spent on constructing roads and other facilities to integrate India’s northeast to its mainland. In the process, they totally undervalued the land transit card that Muchkund Dubey has described as one of “supreme significance” to India because, first, it is the key for Indian mainland’s integration with its strategically located but fragile northeast, and second, Bangladesh is “the pathway to the integration of our economy to those of South East and East Asian countries.”

Thus we underplayed what was a major card for us in negotiating our interests with India. We also almost totally failed to ask India value for our security card. By handing over the ULFA terrorists at our own initiative (we even refused to have done so for mysterious reasons), we have helped India break the backbone of the dangerous ULFA insurgency. If one was to put value for this favour, India’s US$ 1 billion loan would be pittance by comparison.

Instead, despite the failure to reach agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers, we have hailed the visit of the Indian Prime Minister a “big” success. Some enthusiastic people have also given the Foreign Secretary great accolades for calling the Indian High Commissioner and withdraw the land transit. Great credit was also given to our Prime Minister for this “courageous” move.

Our negotiators have claimed success for the visit based on the agreements on the 6.4 km land boundary; exchange of enclaves; 24 hours’ access to Dahagram and Angorpota ; and the 46 items in the RMG sector that we can now export to India duty free. They have however not told us that India was agreement bound to give us all they have now given many decades ago. For instance, the 24 hours’ access to Dahagram and Angorpota through the Teen Bigha corridor is a regression not a success because under the India-Mujib Accord of 1974, it was agreed that the corridor would be given to Bangladesh permanently on reciprocity. Bangladesh kept its deal soon after the Accord was signed.

Nevertheless, these are achievements and there is no way to sidestep these as insignificant. However, on each of these agreements, major groups in India have already started to put pressure on the Indian Government to backtrack. On the land boundary and exchange of enclaves, the BJP is leading the pressure. We should also be careful, going by India’s past track record of promising and reneging, to claim success before India actually delivers on the agreements.

Most recently more confusing and contradictory information have come in the media pointing to our unprofessional way of conducting negotiations with India. The most important one in this context is the issue of land transit. It has now come to light that the land transit offer that our Foreign Secretary withdrew in retaliation to Indian withdrawal of the Teesta agreement was a bluff. Recently, the Economic Adviser said in the media that the land transit and Teesta are not tied!

Subsequently, it has been revealed in the media that the land transit has already begun! The Economic Adviser called this a trial run. The NBR has gone one step further and sent instructions to Akhaura land port about goods from mainland to Tripura but did not mention in the instructions that it is a trial run. Therefore when the FS called the Indian High Commissioner and withdrew the land transit, he was bluffing for by then land transit was signed and gifted away to India.

This raises a very serious issue of ethics not to speak of the fact that by the time the India PM had arrived in Dhaka our negotiators had all but messed up the negotiations. The ethical issue is who was the FS asked to bluff; the Indians or the people of Bangladesh? Quite clearly, it was not the Indians going by the ease with which the land transit has started. Bangladesh in fact went ahead with its commitment on the land transit despite India’s betrayal with the Teesta deal.

To be fair to the FS and the Government of Bangladesh, there was no other choice available to Bangladesh when the Indians reneged on the Teesta. They had to bluff because water is too sensitive an issue in Bangladesh. The recourse to bluff was the only option to Bangladesh once the Indians pulled the Teesta off the table. However, the Government owes it to the people and to future negotiations with India to re-consider its past mistakes and carry forward negotiations with India because our future as a nation depends on it.

There were some major mistakes. First, we believed in India, almost obdiently. Second, our negotiators were not in fact a team but individuals with wrong notions of India and their brilliance as individuals notwithstanding, with little or no experience in diplomatic negotiations. Finally, in their eagerness to make India happy, they completely undervalued our two major cards, namely the land transit and security, and instead harped on how India would turn Bangladesh rich as the connectivity hub of the region.

We are making the same mistake as we did with Farakkha. We allowed a trial run of the Farakkha to eventually become our death warrant. We should reflect upon that and hold back on the land transit. It can still be held back and we must do so for our national interest. We then should seriously evaluate the security card. In both, if played deftly, there is immense value for us to interest India to give us our rights of the waters of the common rivers for which we should seriously ask India to seek a regional approach for augmentation, and a fair demarcation of the maritime boundary.

The other issues that we have with India, some of which have been agreed upon in Dhaka during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, are to put it bluntly, the minor issues in our bilateral relations. We should also for the time being, take our minds off from the promise of rich financial gains as the connectivity hub, keeping in mind that the Indian northeast is still too poor and impoverished for such day dreaming, for the moment at least. As for China becoming a part of that connectivity hub, India in its right frame of mind would never agree to building modern roads connecting China to its fragile northeast, not yet.

We need a negotiating strategy and a new negotiating team. More than that, we need the Foreign Minister to think positively; that diplomacy is the tool that can help us achieve what we need to achieve in our bilateral relations with India. The fact that she has mentioned that she is not an astrologer and hence cannot predict the exact time of a date for signing the Teesta deal is an expression of her lack of knowledge and experience in the art of diplomacy.

Let us have negotiators who are a team. We do not need Harvard scholars or brilliant individuals negotiating on their own. Trained diplomats of the Foreign Ministry would do far better. Let that team take a look at the history of Bangladesh-India relations and then at the issues. Most important of all, let the Prime Minister herself take charge keeping in mind that we achieved the Ganges Accord and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord because she led and directed the negotiating teams. It is a pity that between astrology and guesses and misplaced confidence in India, we have almost wasted the Prime Minister courageous initiative with India that she had taken unilaterally after becoming the Prime Minister in January 2009.

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

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