The BNP and India: Positive signs
June 30, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
A great deal of optimism that was created in Bangladesh by the AL led Government for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations now seems to be fading. Our negotiators are no longer in public view speaking on the good things accruing for us from improving our relations with India.
It is a regret that things have not turned out as our negotiators had expected. Their optimism of Bangladesh becoming the regional connectivity hub with great economic benefits for instance is achievable if relations are conducted on basis of trust. In fact, after giving India the security commitment and granting it a trial run of land transit, Bangladesh should have been on track to becoming the regional connectivity hub if India had kept its part of the bargain.
India’s failure to deliver the Teesta deal at the proverbial 11th hour forced Bangladesh to withdraw the land transit deal that is crucial to making Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub. With it, the prospect of a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations has diminished. The failure to lift Bangladesh-India relations to a new level after Sheikh Hasina showed the way has been largely due to the last minute spanner put by Mamata Banarjee, the mercurial Chief Minister of Paschim Bangla. New Delhi also did not show the strong political will necessary to lift Bangladesh-India relations to a new level of mutually beneficial relations.
Although forward movement of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations have faltered, the benefits of negotiations have not been completely wasted. India now realizes better that land transit would help bring a new era of economic development to the eight northeastern states that are stagnating because they are cut off from the mainland and are landlocked with grant of land transit by Bangladesh a major key to their well being. India has already benefited significantly from the cooperation on security where Bangladesh’s assistance has broken the many decades old ULFA insurgency. India would however need continued security cooperation of Bangladesh to sustain the gain and also to tackle the other insurgencies in the northeast.
Bangladesh has today become better aware that good relations with India would make it the regional connectivity hub. It has also become aware that the economic activates that would follow from it would create the environment of trust to seek the solution of Bangladesh’s water sharing problems with India where the eventual solution would have to be regional and not bilateral. The environment of trust would also in due course take care of the other major problems that Bangladesh has with India such as the issues of trade, killings in the border and demarcation of the land boundary.
Unfortunately, Mamata Banarjee’s spanner halted for the time being the bright prospects towards which Bangladesh-India relations were moving. In fact, if India had moved in the same speed with which Bangladesh went ahead, Mamata Banarjee would not have had the opportunity to be the spoiler of the party. Bangladesh-India relations would have been on way to the new era that Sheikh Hasina’s unilateral moved on Indian needs of security and land transit had promised.
Nevertheless, even if New Delhi had moved fast that would have kept Mamata Banarjee out of the equation, the opposition of the BNP would still have been a problem. In fact, the BNP would then have played the role of the spoiler, blaming India of taking from Bangladesh its critical needs on security and land transit and failing to give Bangladesh its needs on water sharing, border killings, trade issues and land boundary demarcation. It would have then taken stand against the Government for “selling Bangladesh”.
After the forward movement stalled, the BNP changed its stance. In public, it leaders supported friendly relations with India based on trust and mutual respect, no doubt moved by the prospects that negotiations between the two countries brought to the surface before the Mamata Banarjee spanner. In an interview to the New Delhi based Institute e for Defense Studies and Analyses, Begum Khaleda Zia has given an interview that is very refreshing for those who believe and rightly so that India and Bangladesh, for reasons of history and geo politics, should have the best of relations based on trust and mutuality.
In her interview, Begum Zia addressed the two issues critical to India, namely terrorism and connectivity. On terrorism, she said that the two countries should work together and eliminate it bilaterally. She also underscored the fact that apart from tackling terrorism bilaterally, SAARC Regional Convention on Terrorism of 1987 and Additional Protocol of 2004 provide further framework to tackle and eliminate all kinds of terrorism.
Begum Zia also allayed India’s fear about BNP’s stand on connectivity. She assured that the two countries should not be just concerned at connecting each other; she extended Bangladesh’s hand to work together with India to connect South Asia with Southeast Asia. She said that the Look East policy of the two countries should provide the excellent framework not just for connectivity in South Asia but also connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia and China and “will facilitate increased trade and movement of people and ideas amongst all of us.”
Begum Zia of course stressed upon the need by India to resolve the outstanding issues of interest to Bangladesh to take relations forward. She identified these issues as “sharing of the waters of our common rivers, killing of unarmed civilians in the border areas and a satisfactory resolution of our land boundary demarcation.” Begum Zia underlined that “the main challenge to further development of our relations is the lack of confidence and trust among our people in our relationship”.
She was no doubt alluding to India’s recent and past failures to keep its promises and commitments without mentioning instances. Nevertheless, India’s failure to sign the Teesta deal and implementing the land boundary agreement after signing it during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka are fresh in the minds of Bangladeshis that lends credibility to Begum Zia’s views. In underscoring the trust element, Begum Zia was however careful in not blaming India that was quite a departure from the way the BNP has spoken about India in the past. Quite clearly, the BNP has matured to the point where it is not interested anymore to play politics with India or blame India for the sake of blaming it.
The ball is as the cliché goes in the court of India. Begum Zia’s interview should help encourage New Delhi to believe that the BNP is also serious for improvement of relations with India as the AL. Many in Bangladesh were encouraged when Pranab Mukherjee had expressed at his meeting with Khaleda Zia in early May that India is interested in relations with Bangladesh and not with a political party. With Pranab Mukherjee soon to become India’s first Bengali speaking President, this is significant for if India seriously looks beyond the AL for sustainable relations with Bangladesh, the prospects of attaining those relations increase immensely.
Earlier, Begum Zia had a very good meeting with the Indian Prime Minister during the latter’s visit to Dhaka last September. Quite possibly, it is the encouragement coming from top Indian leadership that has brought the change in the BNP’s attitude towards India and the public awareness created by the initiatives taken by Sheikh Hasina.
With BNP now showing positive signs about better relations with India, there should be less concern in India that the AL’s term is getting close to an end. India should now resolve its own internal problems and show the political will that Sheikh Hasina has shown and Khaleda Zia has promised. The issue for betterment of Bangladesh-India relations now rests squarely on India’s political will.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.