Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On Begum Zia's visit to India

 "As I see it" column
The Independent
M. Serajul Islam

Politics make strange bed fellows. Before the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September, 2011 that ended in disappointment, a meeting between an Indian President and Begum Khaleda Zia would have been impossible to imagine and that too in New Delhi while Bangladesh had an AL Government. It was nevertheless very pleasing to see   Pranab Mukherjee receiving Begum Zia at Rastrapati Bhavan, New Delhi. Going by what appeared in the media, their meeting was positive where they agreed about the need of building mutually beneficial bilateral relations by looking forward instead of back. 

A lot has been said about the BNP’s past anti-Indian stance as if this was why the BNP leader was invited. In fact, some of the BNP leaders themselves acknowledged that past with regret to give such a feeling.  One who had spearheaded the anti-Indian stance of the party while the BNP was in power during the 2001-2006 period, former Foreign Minister Morshed Khan said that the party’s past stance on India was a “mistake.” Unfortunately, the BNP leaders who are in a hurry to acknowledge their “mistake” have not done themselves or their party much credit. They failed to understand that India’s interests and changes in international politics were as much, if not more, the reason for the visit to which the softening of BNP’s stance towards India helped. They also failed to highlight that BNP’s past anti-Indian stance t was to a large extent the result of India’s failure to be fair to Bangladesh and condescending with it.  

Take for instance the meeting between Begum Zia and Pranab Mukherjee in Rastrapati Bhavan. One must welcome this meeting for there is a huge potential here for the future of Bangladesh-India relations.  Nevertheless, while acknowledging their “mistakes”, the BNP leaders must keep in mind about what led to the BNP’s anti-India stance in the past. When Pranab Mukherjee as Foreign Minister came to Bangladesh as a Special Envoy in February, 2009, he declined to meet Begum Zia on the lame excuse that he had no time for the meeting. He in fact had time for meeting by then the discredited Army Chief General Moyeen U Ahmed and opening a building in Dhaka University that India funded.  

At that time, New Delhi did not care much for its policy of reaching out to the democratic multi-party polity of Bangladesh. Its main interest then was to keep Sheikh Hasina happy. In fact till the ill-fated visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September 2011, New Delhi did not feel any necessity to reach out beyond the Awami League that was  giving India what past Indian governments were desperate to receive from Bangladesh; namely a full assurance for its security needs and the land transit. In fact, the negotiators of the AL led government gave/promised these Indian needs even without being asked and without seeking reciprocity.  New Delhi nevertheless promised on its own that for these concessions, it will make Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub and provided Banagladesh with a US$ 1 billion soft loan and later converted US$ 200 million out of it as grant. 

It was only after the edifice of Bangladesh-India living happily ever after was brought down by Mamata Banarjee that New Delhi realized that even an obliging government in Dhaka cannot give India anything without reciprocity as the AL led Government quickly withdrew its offer of land transit once India failed to deliver the Teesta deal.  Nevertheless,  the negotiations between New Delhi and Dhaka  succeeded in highlighting the benefits to both sides of building bilateral relations where each showed the political will to carry relations forward. India saw the tremendous benefits of the land transit and security assurance and Bangladesh, the benefits of becoming the connectivity hub and of course the prospect of revolving its water, trade and land boundary issues through positive engagement. 

On the Bangladesh side, the negotiations also succeeded in convincing the BNP to change its anti-Indian stance because it felt for the first time that India was willing to deal with Bangladesh fairly. It also felt that the Indian promise of making Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub was sincere. The BNP also watched favourably the concessions that India gave on trade that is helping Bangladesh close the trade gap weighed heavily in favour of India. It of course acknowledged with a sense of gratitude India’s contribution to Bangladesh’s war of liberation.  It believed   that New Delhi would have given Bangladesh the Teesta Deal as well as the LBA  had it not been frustrated by Mamata Banarjee and the BJP. The BNP nevertheless now feels that the Congress led government is in no position to deliver either of these to Bangladesh but that if negotiations are kept on the right track, these needs of Bangladesh will come Bangladesh’s way eventually.  

New Delhi also learnt a few lessons while noting favourably the change in the BNP’s stance. New Delhi realized that concessions given by the AL without the BNP on board will not be sustainable. Therefore it is reaching out for the “democratic multi party polity of Bangladesh”, particularly because it is concerned about the waning political strength of the Awami League. International politics has also added to change the political scene dramatically to make strange bedfellows out of New Delhi and the BNP. India’s strategic alliance with USA with the intent of containing China and Myanmar’s decision to forge relations with USA has added to the geopolitical importance of Bangladesh. Both India and USA are therefore interested in political stability of Bangladesh for more or less the same reasons. 

Recent politics in Bangladesh has left little doubt in New Delhi and Washington that Bangladesh will slide to political disaster if the AL carried out its way of conducting the next elections in Bangladesh. In both capitals, there is consensus that the change in Bangladesh should reflect the popular will.  At the same time, both India and USA have doubts about the BNP over its Jamat connections. In fact, in both the capitals, concerned officials would compare notes on what the BNP leader said about its alliance with Jamat to her Indian hosts though from the media briefing given by the aides of Begum Zia, there has been no mention whether at all this subject was raised by the Indian leaders with Begum Zia. Assuming this was raised and Begum Zia’s stand has cleared the minds of the Indians, then one would no doubt see India and USA take positive stand for an election in Bangladesh where the BNP would also participate. 

Assuming on the other hand that this subject was not raised, that seems very unlikely, or that it was raised and Begum Zia’s explanation was not convincing, there is still the strong likelihood that India and the USA would ultimately seek a level playing ground for the next elections in Bangladesh. Begum Zia has done enough to encourage the Indians to do so. Her firm commitment for India’s security concerns and connectivity or land transit in exchange for Bangladesh’s water, trade and other demands must have been received in New Delhi very positively. In fact, her upgrading connectivity to the concept of Bangladesh-China-India Consortium with the deep seaport at Sonadia have enough prospects to attract India more than just connectivity leading to making Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub.

Begum Zia’s visit has also helped in creating awareness in New Delhi that despite the AL and the BNP being on each other’s throats, in their conflicting ways they have sent a consensus message to New Delhi that no party in Bangladesh can give India anything unless India is willing to reciprocate. The visit has underscored the fact that Bangladesh-India relations can move forward only on a quid pro quo basis.     

The BNP will now need to build on a successful visit of its leader to benefit from its outcome that could be positive for it and the nation provided if it carried out future negotiations professionally and out of the media. It should insist with New Delhi privately that the immediate need for Bangladesh is to have an election where it could participate and that it will keep its commitments, provided India kept theirs, no matter whether in government or in the opposition after the next general elections. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary to the Government.

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