Is India reaching out to Bangladesh?
As I See It Column
September 1st., 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS) and the Independent had arranged a round table soon after the “state visit” of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India in January, 2010. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni was the key note speaker in that seminar. She of course highlighted the visit as a great success. She was upset and angry when Reaz Rahman, former State Minister for Foreign Affairs under the last BNP Government said that the relationship that the Government was developing with India was with the Awami League and not with Bangladesh.
In retrospect, Reaz Rahman had a very valid point that the Foreign Minister failed to appreciate; a point that is making to the surface in recent times. Immediately after coming to office, the Prime Minister made overtures to India that took many by surprise. She gave India total commitment on its security concerns. She said that Bangladesh would not allow its soil to be used for insurgency against India. As proof , Bangladesh security forces handed to the Indian security forces 7 top ULFA terrorists helping India to break the backbone of the decades old ULFA insurgency in Assam. In its last term in office, the AL led government refused to hand over a much lower level ULFA insurgent Anup Chetia despite Indian request from the highest level.
The Government made these concessions unilaterally. It did not take into account the history of Bangladesh-India relations; a history where India has failed to keep its commitments and did not show inclination to negotiate fairly with Bangladesh setting aside its legitimate concerns on issues of sharing of the waters of the common rivers; Tippaimukh Dam; trade; killings of innocent Bangladeshi on Bangladesh-India borders, and a fair demarcation of the maritime and land boundaries.
On her “state visit” to New Delhi in January, 2010, Sheikh Hasina also handed to India Bangladesh’s only negotiating card namely the land transit without again seeking reciprocity. India nevertheless offered a US$ 1 billion soft loan but geared it to build the infrastructure for the land transit. Thus together with the opposition BNP, there were independent views in Bangladesh outside the Awami League’s inner circles that felt that the AL led government had wasted its playing card in not seeking to negotiate with India on a quid pro quo basis.
New Delhi was pleasantly surprised at the attitude of the Bangladesh Government because it gave concessions that India always wanted without even being asked. It was even more surprised that under the Prime Minister’s direction; her team of negotiators consisting of the Foreign Minister and her two Advisers were doing more for the Indian cause than the Indians were doing for themselves. The Indians accepted Bangladesh’s gestures and made moves to make Bangladesh happy by finalizing an agreement on Bangladesh’s terms on Teesta, signed the land boundary agreement and made serious concessions on trade; concessions it should have made long ago.
Bangladesh withdrew the land transit that it had given to India on a trial basis after Mamata Banarjee’s spanner on the Teesta deal. BJP refused to support the ratification of the land boundary agreement signed in Dhaka during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. These developments stalled the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations after the two sides came as close as they never for such a shift. On India’s side, New Delhi learnt important lessons in dealing with Bangladesh. First, it learnt that it needed to take its own stakeholders on board before giving the concessions Bangladesh wanted. Second, that it also needed to take the whole of Bangladesh on board for sustainable relations and not just the Awami League even if the party formed the government.
The second lesson has been an important one. It has been brought home to the Indians that massive mandates in Bangladesh are highly undependable. It has seen how badly the AL wasted the massive mandate it received in the December 2008 elections by sheer bad governance in the same way the BNP had squandered its 2/3rd majority in its last term. It also sank upon the Indians that despite their preference for the Awami League, they can achieve sustainable relations and fulfillment of their interests in Bangladesh only when they can convince the BNP.
In fact, as India watched the AL Government becoming unpopular in Bangladesh, it also watched the subtle change in stance of the BNP. Negotiations with India since the AL Government came to power brought to the surface the benefits of good relations with India for Bangladesh, particularly the prospect of becoming the regional economic hub. As a consequence, the BNP has expressed the willingness to deal with India provided India relented on Bangladesh’s legitimate interests of water sharing, trade and land boundary.
In fact, New Delhi was prepared to reciprocate to Bangladesh’s legitimate interests for the first time in the history of Bangladesh-India relations when the Indian Prime Minister visited Bangladesh. It was unable to do so unexpectedly because of domestic politics and not due to lack of political will of part of New Delhi. In her meeting with the Indian Prime Minister in Tehran this week, Sheikh Hasina was again assured that India would sign the Teesta deal “as soon as feasible.”Unfortunately for New Delhi, neither Mamata Banarjee nor BJP are showing the inclination to favour New Delhi any time soon. The chances of either or both relenting in the remaining period of the tenure of the Awami League Government do not appear good.
New Delhi is thus concerned about building relations with Bangladesh banking just on the AL. Kolkata’s Daily Telegraph wrote in a recent report that for sometime, visitors from Bangladesh except those close to the AL, have been advising New Delhi not to “put all its eggs in one basket” because of the good possibility of a new government in Bangladesh after the next elections. New Delhi’s concerns have been aggravated as it watched the AL Government create problems and obstacles for itself at home and abroad for no good reason at all seriously compromising its prospects for returning to power. New Delhi is also worried at the AL’s insistence of holding the next elections in a manner that would force the BNP to stay out with the dangerous prospects for not just Bangladesh but encouraging disturbances that could pose serious threat to Indian security.
In May this year, Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka and communicated India’s concerns to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh; to make peace with the opposition and bring back political stability in the country. He met the BNP leader Khaleda Zia and stated in the media that India is interested to build relations with Bangladesh and not with just one political party. It is in this context that HM Ershad recently visited New Delhi. Begum Khaleda Zia who was invited at the same time as President Ershad by the Indian Prime Minister during his visit to Dhaka in September, 2011, is now likely to visit New Delhi soon.
HM Ershad returned from New Delhi and announced that the JP would contest the next elections alone. He also said that the Indian President had told him that New Delhi wanted free, fair and neutral elections in Bangladesh. These developments seem to hint that the New Delhi is not going to stick to the AL alone for conducting its relations with Bangladesh and would henceforth seek out the “multi-party democratic polity” of Bangladesh. It appears like the Indians are getting around realizing the good sense in the apprehension raised by Reaz Rahman in the CFAS/Independent Round Table. Nevertheless, the history of Bangladesh-India relations and the way the Indians have conducted relations would suggest caution in concluding that they are finally going to change to reach out to a democratic Bangladesh although recent developments on both sides have brought to the surface many positives for the future conduct of Bangladesh-India relations.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.