March 10, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The recent state visit of the Indian President to Bangladesh was a rare honour shown to the country. It was Mr. Pranab Mukherjee’s first overseas visit upon becoming the Present, the first Bengali ever to live in Rastrapati Bhavan. Unfortunately what could have been a truly worthwhile visit where the whole of Bangladesh could have given the Indian President a heartwarming welcome ended in disappointment as the visit took place while the country was under hartal called by the opposition.
It was just not the hartal that was the dark cloud over the visit; the fact that the Indian President was in the country while the Jamat was on a rampage and over sixty Jamat activists killed together with a few law enforcing personnel made the environment surrounding his visit even darker and gloomier. These facts notwithstanding, the Indian President was received with the 21 guns salute and all the fanfare that goes with a state visit. He met the President and the Prime Minister and important Ministers including the Foreign and the Finance Ministers called on him. His other important engagement apart from visiting his in laws place in Narail was his address in Dhaka University’s convocation ceremony.
In the Indian system of governance, the President is a figure head and not usually expected to get involved in formulation and execution of policies related to foreign affairs. His role is merely to complement the initiatives of the government and in the context of the few foreign visits that an Indian President takes, merely to be of assistance to the government’s foreign policy initiatives. Therefore, in the context of his just concluded visit to Bangladesh, his visit was not intended to take any new initiative in Bangladesh-India relations or to execute any existing initiatives in these relations.
Nevertheless, Pranab Mukherjee is not just any Indian President. He assumed the office after a lifetime as a politician in the Congress party where he held party and ministerial posts at the highest levels. He is very well respected in the party where his influence is extremely well established and very deep. So is his respect across the party divide. In the context of Bangladesh, he is very important because many of the issues with which Bangladesh is negotiating with India to carry relations forward in line with the vision of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for a paradigm shift in bilateral relations are the ones with which the Indian President had been very deeply involved before vacating his post as the Finance Minister of India to become the Indian President.
Thus, there were a lot of expectations in Bangladesh that the visit of the Indian President would not be merely a ceremonial one. Further, the visit came after a number of very important visits from India to Bangladesh. The Indian Home Minister was in Dhaka in January and signed with Bangladesh the extradition treaty. The Indian Law Minister came before him and the Indian Power Secretary after him. In the context of carrying forward the bilateral relations, the Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai came on a visit early in February that was followed immediately afterwards by a visit by the Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid. These flurry of visits hinted that the Indians were serious about jump starting the bilateral relations that were stalled after the Indians failed to deliver the Teesta water sharing deal during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September 2011 and ratifying the land boundary agreement (LBA) thereafter.
News emanating from official sources in New Delhi in recent times was hinting that the Indian Government was close to resolving both the outstanding issues. The Indian Foreign Secretary and the Indian Foreign Minister made positive references to both the issues in Dhaka. The Indian Foreign Minister said in Dhaka that the Indian Cabinet had approved the draft bill for amending the Indian Constitution that would be necessary to implement the addition protocol that was signed in Dhaka during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to ratify the LBA. He further said that the bill in this regard would be introduced during the current budget session of the India parliament and the BJP that was opposing the ratification would relent. He had further said that New Delhi had made progress with Mamata Banarjee on the Teesta Water sharing deal as well.
As a consequence of these developments, Bangladesh expected that the Indian President would state something specific and definite than what the other visitors from India had stated before. Unfortunately, he did not. In what has come to the media from the interviews he gave to the media as well as what transpired in his talks with the Bangladesh Prime Minister and other Ministers who called on him, both issues are still suck in the stage of promises to Bangladesh. The Indian President said he expected that LBA to be ratified in the current session of the Indian parliament. He did not mention much about the Teesta agreement. He nevertheless assured very forcibly that India would always be with Bangladesh as a friend as it had in 1971 and 2013 would be another beginning. Two members each from the BJP and Trinamool Congress were included in his delegation to give the impression that both the parties were on board for resolving the two outstanding issues.
Despite the President’s assurances on LBA, the news that came from the BJP sources while the Indian President was in Dhaka was a pessimistic one. The BJP said that it would oppose the LBA ratification bill in parliament. If the BJP does so, the ratification bill will be defeated because the Congress and its allies do not have the 2/3rd majority in the Indian parliament that would be necessary to do so. On the Teesta, the situation in Paschim Bangla is getting more difficult for its Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee to concur with New Delhi. Mamata Banarjee is openly playing the Muslim card in her province where her Trinamool party is sliding. She can hope to keep her hold on power if only she has the Muslim votes. A section of the Muslims are already infuriated over the domestic issues concerning Jamat in Bangladesh. At a time like this, it is very unlikely that Mamata Banarjee would be in a position to please Bangladesh because that would upset her Muslim vote bank for the Islamic fundamentalists apart; PM Muslims in general are not favourably disposed towards Bangladesh.
The Indian President’s visit thus has added little to carry forward Bangladesh-India relations. His visit did however add some controversy over the failure of Begum Khaleda Zia to meet him on the plea of security difficulties. The excuse of the BNP leader was of course not a convincing one. Nevertheless, the BNP could have its own reasons in the not keeping the date with the Indian President. First, New Delhi has overtly played its cards in Bangladesh’s domestic politics over the Shahabag youth movement knowing full well stand. Second, the BNP has a past issue that must have influenced it to decide against the meeting. In 2005, the Indians refused to attend the SAARC Summit when the BNP was in power over political disturbances/hartals in Dhaka, thus embarrassing the government in the country as well as abroad. The disturbances in Bangladesh were far worse where more than 50 people were killed in one single afternoon just days before the Indian President arrived in Bangladesh. Further, the whole period of the visit of the Indian President coincided with violent hartal all over the country. The BNP must have sensed New Delhi had clearly chosen its favourite in Bangladesh and thus a meeting between Begum Khaleda Zia and the Indian President would be futile.
When Begum Khaleda Zia was enthusiastically welcomed in New Delhi not too long ago, many independent observers in Bangladesh had expected that India would not choose between the parties in the country. They were also encouraged that the BNP was beginning to see the positive sides of bettering relations with India on a reciprocal basis. Unfortunately, without apportioning blames, it is regrettable that this positive development in Bangladesh-India relations has been given a serious jolt by the Indian President’s visit to Bangladesh. Nevertheless, one aspect of the visit that the media downplayed was his advice that the political parties in Bangladesh should sit and discuss a way out of the current difficult political situation. Knowing the President’s personal influence over the Bangladesh Government he could do Bangladesh as well and Bangladesh-India relations a world of good if he carried forward this advice through the various channels available to him.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador