Friday, November 9, 2012

Begum Zia in New Delhi


Promises of positive development in Bangladesh-India relations


Holiday, Friday 9, 2012

Khaleda Zia with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.

M. Serajul Islam


Former Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia’s just concluded visit to New Delhi is an important one by any yardstick if the objective is betterment of Bangladesh’s relations with India. It has achieved at the bare minimum two major positive changes in the way the two countries conducted relations so far. First, the BNP is willing to leave its anti-Indian stance in politics behind for mutually beneficial relations. Second, India is serious about its new strategy of pursuing relations with the “democratic multi-party polity of Bangladesh.”

With BNP representing the opinion of roughly half the nation, sustainable relations with India cannot be built without the party’s support. In this sense, BNP’s willingness to end its anti-India stance is good news.

Equally, in the past New Delhi had shown little interest in the “multi-party democratic polity” of Bangladesh and preferred to deal with only the Awami League. The visit has highlighted a major change in that Indian stance — a recognition that without the BNP, positive Bangladesh-India relations will not be sustainable. In New Delhi, Begum Khaleda Zia met the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. Prime Minister Manmohon Singh hosted a luncheon in her honour after an hour long official meeting. BJP leader L K Advani was present in the luncheon and had a 15 minutes meeting with her. Begum Zia also met BJP leader in Parliament Sushma Swaraj and BJP President Nitin Gadhari on separate occasions. She also met two key officials in conduct of Bangladesh-India relations, namely the Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and the National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon. Begum Zia’s visit was thus given a profile befitting not just her position as Leader of the Opposition in Bangladesh but also her past as a two time former Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She however did not meet Sonia Gandhi.


High profile visit

That the Indians have given her visit a very high profile was apparent from reactions in Dhaka from some of the close aides of the Prime Minister. The party General Secretary and the Foreign Minister made statements of contempt against the visit and the BNP to belittle it. Other leaders of the party also gave statements in the media trivializing the visit. However, their efforts hinted that the visit must have caused serious stomach cramps in the AL leadership for it no doubt raised questions in the public mind whether New Delhi has faith about a return to power by the AL. The meeting of the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka with the Prime Minister while the BNP leader was in New Delhi was therefore no coincidence. It was New Delhi’s way of assuaging the hurt sentiments of the Prime Minister.

The High Commissioner’s meeting with the Prime Minister was also a message to the BNP and those who are eager to see a great deal into Begum Zia’s visit in the context of Bangladesh’s conflict ridden politics that for New Delhi, the Awami League is still its party of choice. Nevertheless, the discussions that Begum Khaleda Zia had in New Delhi are also going to have a very important bearing on the extent to which New Delhi will be willing to back the AL-led government in Bangladesh as the country comes closer to the next general elections now just a little more than a year away. Clearly some of the commitments that the BNP leader made in New Delhi will be seriously considered because Indian interests will be better served by accepting the positive stance of the BNP instead of rejecting it just to please the AL especially when the latter’s political strength in Bangladesh’s politics is badly waning.


Take for instance the issue of security that is at the heart of what New Delhi wants desperately from Bangladesh. On this crucial issue, it has already received unequivocal commitment from the AL. This fact notwithstanding, Indian insurgents have always had sanctuary in Bangladesh since the Pakistani days. When AL has been in power, these elements did not have indulgence from the political leadership but there has always been indulgence for them at the level of the intelligence. In this context, the present AL government has been different. It decided to dismantle the support for these insurgents at the level of intelligence and has been doing so with sincerity based upon its conviction that such elements are evil for both Bangladesh and India. 


Bipartisan support

Nevertheless, even at the talks at the level of the Home Secreteray held very recently, the Indians have reiterated that there are still many camps of the Indian insurgents in Bangladesh. After the recent incarceration of a Bangladeshi in New York for attempting to blow up the Federal Reserve Building in New York, the Chief Minister of Tripura has also underscored the Indian fear that all terrorists’ camps have not yet been dismantled in Bangladesh. These apprehensions suggest that New Delhi will need more time and continued cooperation from Dhaka and that AL alone will not be able to give them that assurance. The Indians need bipartisan support from Bangladesh to ensure that the country is no longer the soft underbelly of its security concerns; concerns that are enhancing as Bangladesh goes closer to elections with the AL’s chances of returning to office in question.


Therefore the commitment given by Begum Khaleda Zia in her meeting with the Indian Prime Minister not to allow Bangladesh soil to be used for any acts of insurgency or terrorism against India is very good news for New Delhi. The other big issue that Begum Zia discussed with the Indian leaders that must have made her hosts happy was her tacit support for connectivity that is the old concept of land transit that the BNP had been reluctant to discuss with the Indians in the past when it was in government. In the negotiations that the Indians have conducted with the AL-led government in the past four years; the two sides have succeeded in placing before the people of Bangladesh the benefits that granting land transit to the Indians will mean for the country. It is now accepted across the political divide that if the Indians keep their part of the deal, Bangladesh will become the connectivity hub of the region by granting land transit to the Indians with significant economic benefits.


Consortium for development

The BNP Chairperson expanded on the connectivity and the regional hub concept in her discussions with the Indian leaders, calling land transit “inevitable.” She developed the concept of connectivity beyond what the negotiators of the AL-led government had discussed and agreed with the Indians. She offered the Indians to join a Consortium for the development of the region where China will also be a stake holder. She informed her Indian hosts about her discussion in China about this Consortium and that the Chinese have shown active interest in building a deep sea port in Sonadia for the development of the region under a China-India-Bangladesh consortium in which the other countries of the region also could join. The Indian National Security Adviser Shiv Sankhar Menon expressed keen interest in the Consortium and sought details from the BNP leader. 


Begum Khaleda Zia thus offered the Indians what the Indians expected to receive from the AL-led government but did not get when it failed to deliver the Teesta and the land boundary agreement (LBA) deals. She made these offers together with a commitment that must have pleased the Indians a great deal. She committed the BNP against pursuing an anti-Indian stance for the sake of politics that it has done in the past.


 Nevertheless, she differed from the AL in the way she made the offers and the commitment. She subjected these to India providing Bangladesh its legitimate share of waters of the common rivers and fair resolution of the other issues that have remained outstanding over the years. She said that the Teesta Agreement could start the process of legalizing the water sharing issues of the other common rivers. Begum Zia also asserted that India must stop the border killings and ratify the LBA in order to allow her party to give the green signal to India for the land transit and for friendship of her party for mutually beneficial relations through resolution of the other issues outstanding between the two countries. 


New beginning

There has been little official reaction from the Indian side on the visit in the media. The Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Akbaruddin said that the visit of Begum Zia “marks a new beginning, and let’s not look back at the rear view mirror.” The Indian Prime Minister in his meeting with Begum Zia mentioned a zero tolerance on border killings and assured her that India will not do anything to harm Bangladesh. He reiterated India’s commitment for working with all parties for strengthening democracy in Bangladesh. In fact, he and the other leaders Begum Zia met did most of the listening while the latter did most of the talking.

Former diplomats who were actively involved in Bangladesh-India relations in the past when India’s attitude towards Bangladesh was condescending were sceptic and were unwilling to give any positive spin to the visit. The Indian media though has taken a serious and in-depth look at the visit. All leading newspapers carried news of the visit with an air of expectancy and felt it was a positive development in Bangladesh-India relations. The right wing papers like the Pioneer nevertheless refused to accept that the BNP could change its anti-Indian stance so easily. Former editor of the Hindustan Times Hiranmay Karlekar writing for the Pioneer dug into the BNP’s past. 

The views of the former Indian diplomats and journalists like Hiranmay Karlekar are ironically shared by a section of the BNP leadership that has expressed disappointment at the commitments their leader has made in New Delhi. While the anti-Indian views of the BNP leaders have been stressed and in fact over-stressed, India’s failure to deliver and be fair to Bangladesh has been ignored by these diplomats and the likes of Hiranmay Karlekar; attitude that has created and sustained the anti-Indian stance of the BNP. 


Removal of misgivings

Equally, in negotiations by the AL-led government as well as by Begum Zia in New Delhi, what has not been stressed or highlighted is what land transit and security means to India. The security card is priceless; the key to tackling Indian concern that Bangladesh is the soft underbelly of its security on its eastern border. The land transit card is the key to integrating India’s fragile northeast to its mainland which is a major security issue of India and also of tremendous value to it in economic terms.


Nevertheless, the discussions Begum Zia had in New Delhi have been serious and will not fail to attract New Delhi and have a positive impact on the future of Bangladesh-India relations. The China-India-Bangladesh Consortium, for instance, will be attractive to the Indians for a number of reasons. First, it will give it the land transit that is extremely important for it for economic and security reasons. Second, it will make China a stakeholder in the welfare of the region, thereby allaying a lot of India’s misgivings about China’s role in Indian northeast. Finally, it will remove a lot of misgivings that exist among the stakeholders by putting common economic prosperity in the driver’s seat. The prospects are for a sea change in the relations of the three countries if the concept of the Consortium is expanded and realized to its full potentials. 



One of the most important outcomes of the visit of Begum Zia is however an ironic one. She has offered to India exactly what the AL has offered. In other words, she has delivered to New Delhi a clear message that there is a consensus in Bangladesh about giving India land transit and security assurance but only on reciprocity. Begum Khaleda Zia has highlighted this reciprocity in no uncertain terms. The AL led government did not seek reciprocity but when India failed to reciprocate it withdrew negotiations and the movement towards a paradigm shift in bilateral relations was rudely halted. In their separate ways, both parties have now made it clear to New Delhi that they are on the same page; that India can get from Bangladesh what it wants if it delivers what Bangladesh wants. The ball for moving the future of Bangladesh-India relations positively is now squarely in the Indian court.

The BNP now has to proactively engage with New Delhi. As a measure, the BNP should seek New Delhi’s support for the future of multi-party democracy in Bangladesh; a commitment given by the Prime Minister of India to Begum Zia. The BNP must tell New Delhi in no uncertain terms that the most important issue facing Bangladesh now is to assure a change of government that reflects popular will. It must further tell the Indians that unless the change is through a popular will, the country will face political turmoil that will obstruct Bangladesh-Indian bilateral relations, with devastating consequences for the country and the region. In seeking New Delhi’s support, the BNP should commit itself that it will accept the verdict of a free election and even if it is in the opposition, it will pursue the commitments the party leader made in New Delhi on the basis of Indian reciprocity.


Multi-party democracy

The BNP must of course put the party together on relations with India and impress upon the disbelievers that it will not be just the BNP but Bangladesh that will benefit as a result of positive relations with India provided of course if India is also sincere about the hand of friendship that it extended to the BNP based on its newly adopted policy of reaching out for the “multi-party democratic polity of Bangladesh.” Times are changing and following an anti-India stance for the sake of one will isolate the BNP not just from India but from the US and the West because India’s new policy towards Bangladesh has the blessings of the latter. Equally, the BNP must also rein in those, like former Foreign Minister Morshed Khan who are saying BNP’s past anti-India stance was a mistake. The bottom line for the BNP is that it should also be careful in not putting the cart before the horse; it must wait for India to deliver on its commitment for assisting the democratic process in Bangladesh before it can expect the BNP to support the commitments made by Begum Zia in New Delhi in public. 

The BNP should also take lessons from the AL negotiators to correct its negotiating style and strategy. Too many BNP leaders are speaking in the media and contradicting one another. BNP must keep in mind that India needs Bangladesh more today than the other way round for reasons of its own domestic compulsions, security needs and recent developments in international politics that has enhanced Bangladesh’s geopolitical importance. The BNP should keep in mind its strength and not what some of its leaders are wrongly suggesting, its past mistakes while engaging with New Delhi.


The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and retired Secretary



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