26 February, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The last visit before the recent one of the US Assistant Secretary of State during the Grameen Bank controversy was not a pleasant one. He came to Dhaka with something specific to convey to the Government on the Grameen Bank. Although we have not been informed what exactly transpired between him and the Bangladeshi leaders he met on that visit that included the Prime Minister, we are seeing the consequences that are not pleasant.
His just concluded visit has been less dramatic. Nevertheless it drew flak from the Minister of Railways who said that Mr. Robert Blake had no business interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. As for this accusation of interference, there was very little in evidence except his call for consensus between the political parties on the next elections so that those would be fair and free. In addition, he also said in his press conference that human rights situation in Bangladesh is deteriorating, particularly in the context of the media.
Compared to the type of external interference we have seen in Bangladesh politics by foreign visitors and those who stay in the country under diplomatic license, what Mr. Robert Blake said was benign. In the past, foreign guests to Bangladesh of both the short and long duration have not spared Bangladesh on any aspect of governance. They even have been threatening at times. The AL is not on record as ever saying that those blatant interferences were wrong. In fact, when those were made with the BNP in power, they applauded.
One has to wonder also what a Railways Minister has got to do with the visit of a US Assistant Secreteray of State. He has not been named the Government Spokesman and we are not buying anything related to his Ministry from USA. Hence if there has been any real interference here, it is he who has interfered into the responsibilities of his colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
As far as external interference in our internal affairs is concerned, it is something from which we will never be spared for, first, our dependence on foreign assistance for our development, and second, our politics where our politicians welcome foreign interference and criticism to use against each other for political mileage. They complain only when such interference and criticism are not in their favour. If Mr. Blake had by chance spoken in favour of the interim government, the Minister of Railways would have been all praise for the US visitor.
Mr. Blake’s statement upon which the Railways Minister has taken umbrage is however significant. He has said that the US would like to see in Bangladesh elections in which the opposition would have a stake and participate. His visit to the Grameen Bank premises underscored the fact that the US Secretary of State has no digested the insult she was served over the issue of Dr. Mohammad Yunus. These issues are going to haunt the ruling party in the time ahead. Nevertheless, US interference in our politics is going to be different from what it was when the AL was fighting the BNP and seeking the support of foreign powers against the government in 2006.
Between end of 2006 and the present, international politics has changed significantly and so has regional politics. The US is closing its international preoccupation with war on terror. In 2006, that war was the main focus of US’ foreign policy. The BNP’s connections with Islamic fundamentalist forces such as JMB had the US deeply worried about Bangladesh. On a visit to New Delhi in middle of 2005, then US Secretary of State Ms. Condoleezza Rice had said that Bangladesh was emerging as the “next Afghanistan”. In that context, then US Ambassador in Dhaka together with her western colleagues openly entered Bangladesh’s politics with the objective of getting the BNP out of power. In fact, the British High Commissioner had acted actively in favour of the Awami League in pursuing the case against the BNP.
Looking ahead into the next elections in Bangladesh, the US’ interests are not the same. The need to have a hold on politics and government in Bangladesh with a view to fighting the war on terror is no longer an issue for the US in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, Bangladesh has a value to the US for a variety of other reasons, most importantly its geopolitical locations. Hence Bangladesh has a place in US’ foreign policy priorities although of a lesser importance than when it was actively fighting the war on terror.
This time, the US would be happy to deal with these priorities by using its strategic partnership with India by which South Asia minus Pakistan has been left to India as the latter’s sphere of influence. The western powers are also expected to follow the US in allowing India to play the leading role in the emerging issues in Bangladesh’s politics. In this context Mr. Blake’s visit is a very important. He has flagged for the Indians what it expects from the two parties in the context of the next general elections.
Hence whether we like it or not, the external powers will continue to play their roles in our politics and in these roles, India is expected to be more prominent than the western powers including the US. In playing such a role, the Indians have the advantage of its well acknowledged influence over the ruling party. At the present, the ruling party is adamant to hold the next elections under it that the BNP has rejected. Elections under a neutral non-party government is however not just the demand of the BNP; it is today the demand of almost all parties and all shades of opinion except a few in the ruling party. It would be in the interest of India as well to use its influence over the ruling party so that the BNP is encouraged to participate in the next polls because without it, Bangladesh could face political uncertainty that would put into jeopardy India’s vital interests in Bangladesh.
No doubt what Mr. Blake has said about the next elections would also be discussed in the respective capitals of the two countries. The outcome of such consultations could be reflected when the Indian Ministers of Finance and External Affairs come to Dhaka shortly. One only hopes that the Indians would be prepared to play a major role as it is likely to play in our politics without any favorites. The BNP could held the process by softening its stance on India because geopolitical realities demand that Bangladesh as a nation makes its best efforts to have relations with India to further its national interests.
Nevertheless, whatever the outcome, we should be prepared for more interference in our internal affairs by external powers because Mr. Suranjit Sen Gupta and his fellow politicians on both sides of the aisle have failed miserably and are responsible for the undesirable meddling of foreign powers in our internal affairs that is for us all , a national shame. He should be the last person complaining about Mr. Blake’s comments.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.