Saturday, May 12, 2012

On Pranab Mukherjee’s visit: Silver lining in a dark cloud
As I see It ccolumn
The Independent
M. Serajul Islam

When the Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had visited Bangladesh as a Special Envoy to then just installed AL Government, he disappointed many Bangladeshis by his failure to meet the Leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia. In fact many eyebrows were raised in the country when he found time instead to visit Dhaka Cantonment to meet the controversial Bangladesh Army Chief General Moyeen U Ahmed who had threatened to impose upon Bangladesh a military dictated “democratic” rule. Pranab Mukherjee left many wondering whether India favoured a democratic government in Bangladesh or not. 

The Indian Finance Minister was scheduled to visit Bangladesh followed by the External Affairs Minister KM Krishna a couple of months or so ago for a review of Bangladesh-India relations in the context of the Joint Communiqué signed between the two governments during the much heralded visit of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to New Delhi in January, 2010. The visits were planned to salvage the deteriorating bilateral relations because of India’s failure to deliver on the Teesta water sharing agreement and other promises on outstanding bilateral problems. 

In the end, however, the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs took o explained unofficially to the media that the Indian Finance Minister would not be coming to Dhaka for bilateral talks so as not to raise expectations. Instead MFA sources said that he would be visiting Dhaka to address the concluding ceremony of the joint celebrations of the two countries to mark the 150th year of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore. That was hardly anyone’s focus in looking at the visit of the Indian Minister.  

Thus MFA’s unofficial briefing notwithstanding, people in Bangladesh expected that his visit would provide answers that they were seeking for India’s failures to deliver its promises to Bangladesh. When the visit coincided with that of the US Secretary of State, the focus shifted to finding reason why the two leaders were visiting Dhaka at the same time. There were expectations in the air and some apprehensions that there could be some unexpected news from the two visits.  

Pranab Mukherjee is a key figure in the Indian Government. His close connection with the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is well known.  Therefore, his visit was not treated as the MFA indicated.  His courtesy call on the Prime Minister was more like a summit level bilateral meeting with senior ministers in attendance that was followed by a luncheon hosted by her in his honour.  Therefore, there was ample time spent between the two to review the status of Bangladesh-India  relations which was done, albeit in an informal manner. 

Unfortunately, the Indian Minister had nothing to make Sheikh Hasina happy. On the much expected and much awaited Teesta water sharing agreement, all the Indian Minister said was that it would be signed “soon” that in diplomatic parlance could be an indefinite wait.  He was also equally uncertain on the land boundary agreement. He could not assure Bangladesh when the Indian parliament would ratify the agreement that is a mandatory requirement to implement it.  

At the meeting with senior editors of Bangladesh, the Indian Minister said that India would run the extra mile for better relations with Bangladesh. He assured that all outstanding issues would be resolved. He provided details of disbursement of the US$ 1 billion loan and  mentioned that India would write off US$ 200 million out of the loan most of which would be spent for the railway sector to help Bangladesh absorb the bad news on Teesta and the land boundary agreement. What was worth noting from the Minister’s meeting with the editors was his eagerness to explain the reasons for disappointing Bangladesh on the major promises something that neither he nor other Indian leaders cared to do in the past. Also noticeable was his effort to address to Bangladesh’s interests instead of those of any particular political party. 

The Joint Commission meeting held in New Delhi that started while the Indian Minster was in Dhaka also confirmed that the Teesta water sharing and the land boundary agreements would remain uncertain promises to Bangladesh. Nevertheless, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister and the Indian External Affairs were upbeat and expressed satisfaction that bilateral relations were on track although ground reality clearly pointed to the contrary. The Bangladesh Minister expressed concern that unless the Teesta agreement was signed soon, bilateral relations could be adversely affected. 

These facts aside, the visit of the Indian Finance Minister ended on a note that should make a lot of people happy in Bangladesh on something that has nothing to do with the Teesta, the land boundary agreement, the Tippaimukh or the other substantive issues of Bangladesh-India relations. It is in the context of Bangladesh’s internal politics that his visit has raised hopes in the country.  This time he not only met the Leader of the Opposition but also assured her that India would be ready to deal with any political party that would win the next general elections. 

He also raised optimism with his free and fair exchange of views with the senior editors. He said that India has no favourite between the two mainstream parties and that it the democratic right of the people of Bangladesh to choose their government. India, he said, would deal with either of the parties with equal commitment. The message he delivered was clear and meaningful; that India would have no problem dealing with the BNP government if people of Bangladesh elected it to form the next government.  This assurance from the Indian Finance Minister should help remove a public perception that has also been reflected in international media that India is working to ensure a return of the AL to power by any means. 

This message seen together with similar messages from the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Matsuya Okada raises hope in Bangladesh that India would be playing a positive role in Bangladesh that would benefit the democratic process in the country. The three leaders did not land in Dhaka by accident. They must have surely coordinated their visits. In their separate ways, they delivered the same message to the ruling party and the BNP to work together for ensuring continuity of the democratic process in Bangladesh and assuring its political stability.  

Hillary Clinton’s message to this effect given alone would have encouraged the Prime Minister to do the contrary. The DPM’s message, given in the same way, would also have been wasted on our Prime Minister. With Pranab Mukherjee lending India’s support to the message, the chances of the Awami League working for an acceptable system of national elections on which Bangladesh’s political stability depends, appears bright. This is the silver lining in the dark cloud over Bangladesh-India relations. 

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan.

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