Holiday, Friday, October 26, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS) and the Independent had jointly held a Round Table soon after the “state visit” of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India in January 2010. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni presented the keynote address at the RT. She was upset by the remark of Ambassador Reaz Rahman, an Adviser to the BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia at the RT that the relations the Government was building was between the Awami League and India and hence would not be sustainable. He made the remark because Sheikh Hasina had gone on that extremely important visit without even a word with the opposition and on that trip she committed Bangladesh to provide India land transit on a trial basis; gave India complete assurance to meet its security concerns and made other promises/concessions with long term repercussions without seeking reciprocity.
In fact, the AL led government carried out negotiations with India up to the ill fated visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September 2011 believing there was no opposition in the country. India also did not help in this regard. It was too happy that Sheikh Hasina was in the “giving and pleasing India” mood and side tracked the realities of Bangladesh’s politics. Indian negotiators failed to realize that more than half of the people of Bangladesh, and perhaps much more, are suspicious of India because of its past failures to keep promises and commitments and its unfair and condescending attitude towards Bangladesh. They thought they could accept and sustain concessions from Bangladesh on issues critical to it, namely security and land transit, from just the AL led government alone with the opposition not even consulted let alone being taken into confidence. They also thought they could accept these vital concessions without reciprocity particularly on the issue of sharing of waters of the common rivers that is a bipartisan concern in Bangladesh against India.
For nearly 3 years, New Delhi and Dhaka heralded that a new era of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations was emerging where Bangladesh would become the regional connectivity hub with major economic prospects in the offing. It was Mamata Banarjee who sent the high hopes stumbling and forced the two sides to come to grip on reality, in particular on the Indian side by refusing to allow the Indian Prime Minister to sign the Teesta deal during his Dhaka visit. The BJP also joined later to destroy the prospects of Bangladesh-India relations moving towards the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina wanted and India supported. Although Mamata Banarjee was the immediate cause why Bangladesh-India relations failed to move forward; the relations floundered because the AL carried less than half the nation and India failed to take the necessary political risks.
Mamata Banarjee/ BJP thus combined to deny Bangladesh-India relations from “living happily ever after”. They forced the Congress led government to rethink, first, that it cannot build sustainable relations with Bangladesh just with one political party given the country’s highly partisan politics and, second, sustainable relations cannot also be developed without consensus in India on the issues. These realizations dawned on India by the way the Teesta deal was taken off the table and Bangladesh’s refusal to sign the long term agreement on the land transit in retaliation and the sudden pall of gloom that descended over the development of relations after initially raising high hopes. The Congress led government also realized that India had never come so close to getting from Bangladesh two concessions that are critic to its national interests, namely the land transit from its mainland to its fragile but strategically important Northeast and a commitment from Bangladesh on its security interests, considered by India to be the soft underbelly of its security concerns. If domestic politics had not interfered, this time, India would have given Bangladesh the Teesta deal and ratified the land boundary agreement (LBA) for its own sake.
India’s frustrations notwithstanding, it realized that the three years of conducting negotiations with Bangladesh were not completely wasted. India watched positive changes in the BNP; that it believed India was serious about assisting Bangladesh to become the regional connectivity hub in exchange for the land transit and security cooperation/commitment. The BNP expressed support for both the Indian needs but also demanded that New Delhi would do its fair share on critical issues of water sharing, trade and demarcation of the LBA. New Delhi also watched the AL wasting its massive electoral victory and felt that as it entered into its fourth year in office, it was hardly in a position to deliver to India the promises and commitments it had made. In fact, in New Delhi, the view was that even if India would have delivered the Teesta and LBA deals, the AL was no longer popular enough to give India the land transit and total security assurance/commitment without the support of the opposition. In fact, Indian intelligence agencies advised the political leadership that the AL would lose the next elections and India should not “put all its eggs in one basket” and should look beyond the AL for building long term and sustainable relations with Bangladesh.
This new thinking in New Delhi was un-mistakenly underlined when Pranab Mukherjee came to Dhaka in May this year as India’s Finance Minister. After a meeting with Khaleda Zia, he said in a press conference that India was interested in building relations with Bangladesh and not with just a political party. The official visit that Begum Khaleda Zia would be undertaking later this month flagged that new line of thinking in New Delhi because it was not easy for the Congress led government to have extended the invitation to Khaleda Zia knowing how upset and unhappy it must have made Sheikh Hasina. New Delhi has been forced to this new line of thinking for sake of its national interests because it now accepts that without support of the BNP on Bangladesh-India relations, it would not be able to develop long term sustainable relations with Bangladesh where it would also be happy to deal with the party even if it formed the next government in Bangladesh.
Begum Zia would therefore be meeting an Indian leadership eager for BNP’s support for sustainable relations with Bangladesh. She would be visiting India when international politics in the region has changed fundamentally. Myanmar’s willingness to come out of the cold and USA’s overtures towards it has suddenly made Bangladesh’s geopolitical location of immense importance to the United States. The flurry of visits to Dhaka by top US diplomats including Hillary Clinton in recent times flagged this newly acquired strategic geopolitical importance of Bangladesh to the United States. The US Ambassador in Dhaka has also left no secret of this now focus of the US on Bangladesh. Interestingly, India and the US are together on the newly acquired strategic geopolitical location of Bangladesh because of the strategic partnership pact they recently signed to deal with China in the Asia and the Pacific. For their own interests, the two countries would also seek political stability in Bangladesh and would like the next government to reflect popular will.
The BNP leader would therefore find New Delhi receptive for her to state the case of Bangladesh for a new era of mutually reciprocal and beneficial relations that the AL failed to achieve partly because of over eagerness to please India and partly because of India’s failure to deliver. She would do her party a great service if she would state clearly whether in power or in opposition, her party would support India on its security concerns and provide it land transit but only in exchange for resolving Bangladesh’s concerns on water sharing, trade, land boundary and Tippaimukh together with the commitment to make Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub. She should ask for a package deal on a quid pro quo basis and not allow India concessions for promises. Begum Zia should also impress upon India the need of supporting in Bangladesh her party’s move for national elections where the BNP would be able to participate and not one where these would be conducted by an interim government headed by the AL that were likely neither to be free nor fair. She should convey her fear that without her party participating, the country would slide into a dangerous political situation where not just Bangladesh would suffer the consequences; such a situation would also affect India directly.
The Indians are likely to treat her visit with added importance because she would be visiting India after her visit to China where she would be holding discussions with the new leadership soon to take power In Beijing. India is aware that in China President Zia is regarded with respect because of his role in laying the foundations of Bangladesh-China relations that has withstood the test of time. New Delhi is also likely to view a BNP government friendly with it, should it win the next elections, and also close to China as an advantage worth exploring.
New Delhi’s invitation to Begum Zia points to a policy shift that it explained during the visit of HM Ershad to India; that it would like to reach out to the “multi party democratic polity of Bangladesh” instead of just one political party. In truth however, Begum Zia scheduled visit to India suggests that New Delhi is in no position to deliver the Teesta and LBA deals to the AL before the next elections in Bangladesh. Its policy of reaching out for Bangladesh’s multi-party polity also reflects its suspicion that the AL would not be able to return to power and that India’s interests would be better protected by extending a hand of friendship to the BNP, particularly as the latter has significantly toned down its anti-Indian rhetoric, as a sort of insurance policy in the event it came to power. It would be wise for Begum Zia and her team to keep in mind that New Delhi has invited her risking offending the Awami League because it has taken due note of new realities in Bangladesh-India relations and regional politics. If Begum Zia and her team work within these new and emerging realities, the visit would be useful for future of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations no matter which party would form the next government in Bangladesh.
The writer is a former career Ambassador to Japan and retired Secretary