HM. Ershad’s visit to New Delhi: Is India changing its Bangladesh policy?
August 31st., 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The recent high profile visit of former President HM Ershad to India was surprising and intriguing. He and the Jatiya Party have been playing the “India card” more aggressively since the disappointing visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September last year than the BNP. Then of course are his military background and the general belief in the country that as a politician he cannot be trusted that raises questions why the Indians treated him the way they did.
Some political analysts have argued that he was invited by the Indians to convince him not to abandon the Awami League as he is threatening to. New Delhi feels that the AL is in a tight political corner with its general failure in governance and therefore would need the support of the Jatiya Party that has the potentials to emerge as a third force in the next general elections.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) however has given a different explanation, one designed to show India as the great champion of democracy, a country that is not interested in interfering in the politics of any of its neighbours. The MEA spokesman Syed Akbarruddin said that HM Ershad’s visit is “part of our ongoing engagement with the democratic and multi-party polity of Bangladesh” in an attempt to end speculation in political circles about the visit.
On the face of it there is no reason to question the Indian explanation because Bangladesh is a multi-party democracy. However it is the way that New Delhi has conducted relations with Bangladesh in the past that makes it difficult to accept the MEA explanation. In the history of Bangladesh-India relations, the Indians have always shown a clear preference from among the many political countries in the country. New Delhi has always preferred to deal with an Awami League government in Dhaka. When in opposition, New Delhi did not leave anyone in doubt in Bangladesh that it wanted the party to be back in office.
The relations between Bangladesh and India have always been friendlier when there has been a Congress party in power in New Delhi and an Awami League government in Dhaka. Even when there has been a non-Congress government in India, New Delhi has shown special friendship to an AL Government than a non-AL Government in Bangladesh. In fact, the common knowledge in Bangladesh is that India and its political parties are not interested in any other political party in Bangladesh other than the AL.
Therefore the sudden interest of the Indians in reaching out for the democratic polity of Bangladesh does not seem to fit with the trend they have followed in Bangladesh-India relations over the past 4 decades the two countries have been conducting relations. In fact, when Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka in February, 2009 as a Special Envoy of the Indian Prime Minister, he declined a request of the BNP for a meeting with Begum Khaleda Zia on the excuse that he was hard pressed for time. He however had time to meet the Army Chief General Moyeen U Ahmed and also spend a few hours in Dhaka University on that day long trip to Dhaka!
On analysis therefore the argument that the Indians invited HM Ershad to give him a message from the highest political level in India to remain with the Grand Alliance to help the Awami League win the next elections appears to be a better explanation of the visit than the one given by MEA. However, upon his return to Dhaka, the former President stated in the media that the JP would go for the next elections independent of the Grand Alliance that belies the argument that the Indians wanted the JP to remain with the Grand Alliance. If they did, Indian request from the highest political level to remain with the Grand alliance, if given at all, seems to have had no impact upon the former President.
Then a few other things that the former President Ershad has said in his media briefings that suggest that the reason for inviting him to New Delhi is more subtle than what many are speculating and may be more in line with MEA’s explanation but not for simply reaching towards the democratic multi-party polity but for different reasons. HM Ershad said upon his return from the Indian capital that New Delhi wanted the next elections in Bangladesh to be free and fair. One newspaper report on his media briefing mentioned in that New Delhi also wanted the next general elections in Bangladesh to be “independent” in addition to being free and fair.
If the former President has been truthful in what he said, then there is reason to believe that the Indians are subtly changing their Bangladesh policy. If the Indian President and Prime Minister have told the former President that they want the next elections in Bangladesh to be free , fair and independent then they are not really backing the Awami League that wants to hold the next general elections in Bangladesh under an interim government to be headed by Sheikh Hasina that the BNP has dismissed, a move that everyone else except the hardcore AL supporters believe would neither be free nor fair.
In fact, when Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka in May this year, he gave early hints about the subtle change in New Delhi’s “Bangladesh policy.”After the meeting with Begum Khaleda Zia, Pranab Mukherjee said that India is interested in relations with Bangladesh in sharp contrast to his view about the opposition in Bangladesh when he was in Dhaka as a Special Envoy. The conclusion that many in Bangladesh have drawn on this statement was that New Delhi was sorting out its options in Bangladesh, no longer confident that the AL would be returning to power in the next general elections.
Kolkata’s Daily Telegraph has given an analysis that seems closer in explaining why HM Ershad was given such a high profile visit supporting the change in New Delhi’s “Bangladesh policy”. In a report on the eve of the visit it wrote that New Delhi has been getting from “nearly all visitors barring those sympathetic to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina” a warning “to India against “putting all its eggs in one basket”; a warning that Dhaka may have a new ruling alliance other than the Awami League after the next elections and that it is time for New Delhi to prepare itself to deal with political parties other than the AL.
The Indians, in fact, realized that a change in its “Bangladesh policy” would be necessary as soon the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations that started with the unilateral concessions to India by Sheikh Hasina hit the hard rock on India’s failure to sign the Teesta water sharing agreement. On return from that visit, New Delhi realized that the spanners injected by Mamata Banarjee and the BJP would not enable it to give Bangladesh theTeesta Deal and the land boundary agreement that although signed in Dhaka but needed ratification by parliament, in the short term. It also realized that without giving these commitments, the AL led Government would be unable to give India continued support on security. As for the land transit, the Bangladesh Government angrily withdrew that as retaliation for India’s failure on the Teesta.
For New Delhi, it never came so close to clinching its interests in Bangladesh as it did on the eve of Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka. If only the Teesta Deal would have been signed, land transit would have been a done deal and India could have felt confident of long term and sustainable support of Bangladesh on both issues crucial to India’s national interests, namely security and land transit.
The recent communal riots in Assam with charges of ethnic cleansing where the Bodos killed a good number of Muslims raised the scepter of renewed rise of terrorism on the Bangladesh-India border. On Bangladesh-Myanmar border, the Rohingyas are again being subjected to ethnic cleansing where Bangladesh’s decision to close its borders have created new possibilities of terrorism and insurgency. The Indians are viewing these developments with concern and need the same commitment from Bangladesh as it had received in the period leading up to the visit of Manmohon Singh to Dhaka.
At a time when New Delhi feels it needs Bangladesh’s support and cooperation the most, the government in Bangladesh is unable to show the same enthusiasm towards India for failing to keep its commitments. While India has watched this change in Bangladesh Government, its ability to do the needful is not in the hands of the government. New Delhi would need time to resolve the issues with Mamata Banarjee and the BJP to keep its commitments with Bangladesh.
At the same time, New Delhi has also watched a change in Bangladesh in the AL and the BNP. As a consequence of the positive side of the negotiations that Bangladesh and India has carried out till relations stalled after Manmohon Singh’s visit, the BNP’s anti-Indian rhetoric has considerably toned down. It is now willing to deal with India on a quid pro quo basis having seen the prospects of Bangladesh becoming a regional economic hub. India has taken note of this change in the BNP. There has been highest level exchange of letters between New Delhi and the BNP. In fact, Begum Khaleda Zia has also been extended the same invitation as was extended to the former President HM Ershad and in fact is close to making the trip to New Delhi. Clearly, New Delhi is talking with the BNP not just at the highest level but also at the operational level.
At the same time, New Delhi is no longer confident that the AL led government is in a position to meet Indian needs and interests not just because of India’s failure on commitments but more importantly because on its own failure in governance where its popularity has gone down significantly in the country and at the same time, it has chosen for some unbelievable reasons to annoy powerful countries; leaders and institutions abroad. The Indians are particularly worried that the AL is adamant to create serious political conflict over the issue of the next elections that is making it chances of returning to power uncertain. The Indians feel disturbances over the elections would cause the type of political situation in Bangladesh that would in consequence pose serious threats to its own security.
Unfortunately for New Delhi, it does not seem like the Awami League is any longer listening to India as it used to before the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka that was a honeymoon period in Bangladesh-India relations and from India’s point of view, the best ever. In that period, the Bangladesh Government was in the giving mood and considered friendship with India at any cost as its most important goal in governance. The Foreign Minister and the two Advisers of the Prime Minister who were constantly in public view praising India during the honey mood period have quietly slipped into the background.
In such a developing political scenario in Bangladesh, India is sorting out its options aware about the dangers of putting all its eggs in one basket. It has used President Ershad to give a message to the Awami League that it can no longer take for granted that New Delhi in future would look upon it as its only option. New Delhi has also sent the message to the Awami League that it should resolve the un-necessary problems that it has caused in domestic politics and that it should make all out efforts to hold the next elections in a manner where the opposition would also participate. At the same time, it has also sent the message to the opposition, particularly the BNP that it would be willing to deal with it if it comes to power through free, fair and independently held elections.
If indeed, New Delhi deals with Bangladesh as its MEA has explained and as developments hint then the Indians could be assisting Bangladesh’s tryst with democracy find its course. The world has failed to encourage the AL that its course of action in domestic and international politic would bring more conflict for Bangladesh and push the country towards disaster. The Indian policy for reaching out towards the multiparty policy of Bangladesh could bring the AL back to its senses for notwithstanding the recent developments, the AL still has enough common sense to know that losing New Delhi is something that they cannot really afford. It just needs to be hit on the head. The visit of HM Ershad and Khaleda Zia’s to follow has been designed to achieve this objective.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.