Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Visit of the Indian Foreign Minister: More promises?

The Independent
March 2, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Shahabag Projonmo Chattar demanding the death sentence of Quader Mollah took away a great deal of focus from the very important visit of the Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid to Dhaka from 15-17 February.  The Minister’s visit was undertaken as part of consultations under the Bangladesh-India Joint Consultative Commission that was created after the AL Government came to power and meets at each other’s capital annually. Nevertheless, it came after a number of important visits from India and ahead of the visit to Dhaka early next month of the Indian President. Therefore, there were a lot of expectations concerning the visit particularly because Bangladesh was badly let down by India with its failure to deliver the Teesta deal and the ratification to make the land boundary agreement effective.

Salman Khurshid met the Prime Minister at her office. At his meeting, he handed to her a cheque for US$ 50 million as part of the US$ 200 million that the Government of India had converted to grant out of the US$ 1 billion soft loan that it had offered to Bangladesh in 2010 soon after the Awami League government assumed office He co-chaired the JCC Meeting with his Bangladesh counterpart Dipu Moni. .  Following the conclusion of the JCC Meeting, Bangladesh and India signed two MOUs; one on the Akhaura-Agartala rail link and another on setting up a think tank named India-Bangladesh Foundation and also inked an addendum to the Agreement on Avoidance of Double  Taxation. The Indian Foreign Minister also met the Leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia. The two Ministers also held a joint press conference before the Indian Minister returned to New Delhi.

The Indian Foreign Minister, while meeting the media, did not give the Bangladesh Government the confidence it needed to believe in New Delhi that the issues over which Bangladesh was given the jolt during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September, 2011, namely the Teesta water sharing and ratification of the land boundary agreement (LBA) were actually going to be resolved soon. The Minister said that the Indian Cabinet had approved the draft to be placed before Parliament for amendment of the Constitution to ratify the LBA and that the matter would be considered in the current session of the Indian Parliament. He also said that New Delhi has been carrying out discussions with the stakeholders for signing the Teesta Agreement and that  the Indian Government was hopeful that the Teesta Agreement would be signed soon. He did not mention the status of New Delhi’s discussion with Paschim Bangla and its mercurial Chief Minister on the issue. He also made no mention whether the BJP’s objection to the LBA has been resolved.

The Indians thus left Bangladesh more or less in the same position on the Teesta and LBA where the two issues were stuck since they were aborted. On the border killings that has been another major issue hampering bilateral relations, the Indians have assured a zero tolerance. It has been acknowledged in Bangladesh that as a result of Banagladesh Government’s stand on the border killings, the Indians have been encouraged to lower the number of people being killed. Nevertheless, the assurance of zero tolerance is still a promise and has not yet been achieved although there has been a positive change in the Indian stance. In 2010, when then Indian Foreign Secretary had visited Dhaka; she had said that the Bangladeshis who were being killed should not have been in the line of fire! Subsequently delegations from the BSF also failed to assure Bangladesh no zero tolerance as the Indian Foreign Minister has done this time.

One visible gesture from the Indians was the US$ 50 million cheque that the Indian Foreign Minister carried for Bangladesh. This gesture brought back memories of Bangladesh’s sense of pride in the years just after the country had earned its independence by fighting a successful war of liberation. The Indians had offered the Bangladesh Government a substantial amount of land in New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave Chanakyapuri and had also proposed to build the Bangladesh High Commission as a gift to the newly independent country. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman turned down the offers on the issue of national pride. For many years thereafter, the Bangladesh High Commission operated out of rented property till it built its own High Commission. Interestingly, Bangladesh allowed the Indians to operate from property abandoned by Pakistanis at rent collected by the government that was a pittance!

Bangladesh has come a long way since those days. It has now a robust economy where it no longer has to depend on external aid for its economic development the way it did in the years just after our independence. Today, Bangladesh can boast of better indicators in the social sectors of growth than India. Therefore this US$ 50 million grant that the Indian Foreign Minister brought for Bangladesh should have been diplomatically declined the same way Bangabandhu had refused the Indian offers on national pride.   Great Britain recently announced that it would discontinue aid to India which is US $ 480 annually and only 0.03 percent of its GDP from 2015. New Delhi hailed it on national pride. The Indians should have considered Bangladesh’s national pride before making the offer.

In fact, if New Delhi is serious about long term friendship with Bangladesh, it should allow Bangladesh to use the US1 billion soft loan offered in 2010 which so far has been largely unutilized for construction of the Padma Bridge. Bangladesh has already given India broad hint when the Finance Minister said in the media that Bangladesh could use the US$ 200 million that India had already offered as grant of the US$ 1 billion soft for the Padma Bridge. The Indians sidetracked the hint when the Indian Foreign Secretary said during his recent official visit to Dhaka that no discussion has taken place between the two sides on the issue.  With the Government in a limbo over funding for the construction of the Padma Bridge and given its importance to the Bangladesh economy, why can’t India offer the entire US$ 1 billion soft loan for construction of the Padma Bridge?  Our Prime Minister could put this request directly to the Indian President when he arrives in Dhaka on 3rd March for a two-day State Visit.

The Indian Foreign Minister’s visit did not raise any significant optimism that India would soon resolve the issues that have held up forward movement of relations. Nevertheless, one cannot doubt that after putting the relations in cold storage since the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, New Delhi in recent times has been making major efforts to make Bangladesh Government happy. In fact, the Indians seem to be overdoing in that effort that raises doubts in many minds whether the Indians are choosing sides in Bangladesh’s politics with the elections in Bangladesh round the corner where the “India factor” would be  an important election issue.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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