Former President Ershad’s intriguing trip to New DelhiAs I see it
August 25, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
President HM Ershad’s recent visit to New Delhi was an intriguing one. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs explained that the visit has been undertaken by the former President as part of the Indian government’s “ongoing engagement with a democratic and multi-party policy of Bangladesh.” On the face of it, the MEA’s explanation seems perfectly in line with the democratic credentials of India. Yet, the explanation somehow also leaves a lot unexplained in the context in which India has conducted relations with Bangladesh’s political parties in the past.
For instance, the Indians did not show such democratic finesse when then Indian Finance Minister and now the President of India Pranab Mukherjee visited Bangladesh as a Special Envoy of Prime Minister Manmohon Singh soon after the AL had taken office in January, 2009. They turned down a request from the BNP for a meeting of the Leader of the Opposition with him on the ground that his tight schedule did not permit him to accept the request. Pranab Mukherjee who was on a one day trip nevertheless found time to meet General Moyeen U Ahmed, then the outgoing Army Chief and also to open a new building in Dhaka University that the Indian had funded!
Historically, the Congress and the Awami League have special relations based on the events of 1971. The relations have withstood the test of time and whether in power or out of it, the two political parties have had the best of relations over the years. Thus when the AL came to office with a massive majority in January, 2009 and the Congress also in office in New Delhi, the stars of Bangladesh-India relations came into perfect alignment for a paradigm shift in the stagnant relations between the two neighbours.
In fact, it was Sheikh Hasina who made the first move. She offered to India total commitment to its security concerns. She not only vowed not to allow Indian terrorists/extremists to use Bangladesh as a sanctuary and springboard for its terrorist activities in Assam and other northeastern states, she delivered to the Indian security 7 top ULFA terrorists that has broken the back of the decades old ULFA insurgency in Assam. Bangladesh also granted India trial run of land transit, for long an Indian dream. Sheikh Hasina granted these concessions to India without even being requested and without seeking anything from India.
The Indians reciprocated by upgrading Sheikh Hasina’s visit India to a “state visit” by a breach of protocol because such a visit is extended only to a head of state and not to a head of government. In that visit, in a 56 paragraph Joint Declaration, the Indians promised a lot of concessions to Bangladesh on key issues of interest to Bangladesh, namely water, trade and border related ones. Indians also offered Bangladesh a US$1 billion soft loan to be spent mostly for development of infrastructure to implement the land transit.
That was the honeymoon period of Bangladesh-India relations that lasted till the return visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September, 2011. In that period, there was a flurry of visits of Bangladesh Ministers to New Delhi hinting at great moments to come in Bangladesh-India relations. The Foreign Minister and two of Prime Ministers Advisers helped build up great expectations in Bangladesh that India would turn the country into the regional economic hub where a great economic future awaited it. In that honeymoon period, the Indians were not bothered about the “multi-party polity” in Bangladesh led by the BNP that was concerned that the government was handing over critical concessions to India without any reciprocity. India was concerned that any overtures to the opposition would offend the Awami League and put at jeopardy realization of its interests.
The Indians failed to live up to its part for the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations that Sheikh Hasina initiated. During the visit of Manmohon Singh to Dhaka, the Indians were unable to sign the Teesta water sharing deal because of Mamata Banarjee’s objection. At the same time, the Indians also failed to meet Bangladesh’s concerns on Tippaimukh Dam and the killings on the border by the BSF. In retaliation, Bangladesh withdrew the offer of land transit that just needed an exchange of letters for final and complete implementation. The Indians subsequently also failed to ratify the land boundary agreement that was projected as a major positive outcome of the Indian PM’s visit to Dhaka because of the BJP’s objections.
The disappointing Dhaka visit of Manmohon Singh signaled a change of attitude in the Bangladesh Government that came under severe pressure from the opposition BNP. In fact, sniffing a potential political advantage, President Ershad also started talking in the media in the same vein as the BNP. In fact, the BNP’s rhetoric was more toned down than that of the Jatiya party. The Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s two Advisers also went to the background and were no longer placating the great advantages that Bangladesh would receive from India’s cooperation in transforming the country into a regional economic hub. The Prime Minister on a number of occasions went public in expressing disappointment at India’s failure to deliver on commitments. The Bangladesh Government was no longer showing the same obliging attitude towards India as was there up to Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka.
Unfortunately for the AL led government, the declining trend in Banagladesh-India relations also coincided with the mess that it made of governance, a lot of which has been self-inflicted. On the issues of Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the WB, the Government annoyed its traditional allies in high places and positions un-necessarily. On issues of human rights, it also annoyed friends in Europe and elsewhere. On domestic issues, it failed to deliver on election promises on electricity, food prices; corruption and law and order that have all but withered off the massive popularity with which it came to office. In addition to all the above, the AL set the country on a collision course by the 15th amendment under which it intended to hold the next general elections with Sheikh Hasina as the Interim Prime Minister.
The Indians need time to keep their commitments and promises to Bangladesh. In fact, for New Delhi, the spanner from MB was unexpected. If she had not objected at literally the 11th hour, the Teesta agreement would have been signed during Manmohon Singh’s Dhaka visit. The Indians are themselves concerned for their failure because they have seen in Bangladesh a genuine commitment to better relations with India not just in the AL but also in the BNP that has publicly acknowledged the benefits of good relations based on reciprocity. India needs continued security commitment from Bangladesh and land transit to integrate in fragile northeast with the mainland. Unfortunately, they now see that AL is no longer in control in Bangladesh and thus not in a position to continue to give to India, these two needs vital to its national interests.
Thus the Indians are looking beyond the AL for securing their long term interests in Bangladesh. Of course their best option is still the AL. Unfortunately they now are not confident in the AL any longer and thus making overtures towards the “multi-party polity” of Bangladesh. Pranab Mukherjee’s meeting with Khaleda Zia in May this year and his comment thereafter that India wants relations with Bangladesh (and not with a political party) is therefore very significant. It is also significant that when Bangladesh was under pressure from the United States and the World Bank, India neither offered to help nor did Bangladesh go to India seeking help concerning its problems although India has considerable influence with both.
It is in this context that India’s recently stated policy that it wants relations with the “multi-party polity of Bangladesh” and the invitation to HM Ershad makes sense. The Indians have of course another reason to have invited him despite his virulent anti-India campaign in recent times; to send a message to the Awami League that it should put its politics and foreign relations in order to continue to receive the same level of support that they have given it traditionally and historically. In fact, President Pranab Mukherjee gave this message loud and clear when he told HM Ershad that it is a free, fair and neutral election that India wants in Bangladesh; a clear rejection of the Prime Minister’s insistence to hold the next elections with her as the head of the interim government.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt