Thursday, September 5, 2013

INDIAN EDITOR’S LETTER TO MODI Wrong assumptions and misperceptions

Friday, 6th September 2013
M. Serajul Islam

A Dhaka English daily recently carried an unusual article last week. It was a copy of an open letter written by Sekhar Gupta, the Editor of The Indian Express to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the BJP, who would most likely be the next Prime Minister if the BJP were to win the next national elections in India. In the letter, Sekhar Gupta pleaded and reasoned with Narendra Modi to use his position to convince his party colleagues to come to a consensus and back the Congress led government to ratify the Bangladesh-India Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) that the Indian Prime Minister committed to Bangladesh on his visit to Dhaka two years ago as reciprocal gesture for Bangladesh’s support for Indian security.

Sekhar Gupta articulated the case of Bangladesh far better than Bangladesh has done or could hope to do. He stated clearly that after Sheikh Hasina had been “incredibly brave to turn around her India policy, …our inability to deliver on two solemn agreements, Teesta (blocked by Mamata) and now the land boundary pact, are becoming her killer embarrassment”. He exposed the inner conflicts within the BJP for which Bangladesh was not responsible for which it became the victim. He asked Narendra Modi to resolve the BJP’s inner conflicts and back the Congress led Government’s effort to ratify the LBA so that India would not waste a historical opportunity for sustainable peace with Bangladesh to protect its national interests, including crucial security ones.

‘Killer embarrassment’
He questioned the BJP’s entrenched view about Bangladesh being “Pakistan on its eastern border”, a view that many outside BJP also share. He argued that the choice before India following Sheikh Hasina’s courageous decision to turn Bangladesh’s India Policy on its head was to support the LBA ratification so that Bangladesh would continue to be led by the “liberal, secular” Awami League or deny that ratification and suffer the consequences. He answered the consequences by a rhetorical question to Narendra Modi whether he wanted on India’s eastern border, a “secular, liberal” government led by the Awami League or an “Af-Pak” type with elections in Bangladesh in December led by those opposing the AL in Bangladesh’s politics. 

Sekhar Gupta was correct that the LBA and Teesta deals have become “killer embarrassment” for Sheikh Hasina before the country’s national elections. Four former Indian High Commissioners in Dhaka - Muchkund Dubey, Dev Mukherjee, Veena Sikri and Rajeen Mitter- have expressed the same view, as have many others including BJP’s own Varun Gandhi. These are instances for the first time where prominent Indians have been critical of New Delhi for being unfair to Bangladesh. However, these prominent Indians knew that New Delhi would not be able to deliver these deals when the Indian Prime Minister’s committed the deals to Bangladesh two years ago. They kept silent and have raised their voices only when they have felt that it would adversely affect the Awami League in the forthcoming elections!

Indian mindset
Sekhar Gupta has expressed the mindset upon which Bangladesh-India relations have faltered in the past, the mindset that most Indians suffer from; that New Delhi’s relations with Bangladesh are worth pursuing only with the Awami League. He did not stop at being overtly partisan over Bangladesh. He argued in the letter against the credibility of the BJP’s view that Bangladesh represented Pakistan on India’s eastern frontier. He then argued that if New Delhi did not rescue the Awami League, Bangladesh would have an “Af-Pak” type of Government. He thus identified the opposition forces in Bangladesh led by the BNP as forces that would turn Bangladesh into such a type of government if elected to power.

It is true that in the past, the BNP had shown political closeness with Pakistan and committed acts out of that closeness that could be correctly construed in India as against its interests. However, to describe a possible BNP led government, as “Bengali speaking Af-Pak” type is grossly incorrect and unfair. The BNP has been in power for three times in the past and at present likely to come back to power a fourth time if the country were to have elections where it could participate. To dismiss such a party so arrogantly is not even common sense. It was the BNP Government of General Zia that signed the Ganges Water Agreement with India in 1977. In recent times, the BNP expressed positive views on India that Sekhar Gupta and others who have recently asked New Delhi to deliver the two deals have ignored that leaders in India should not fail to take into account. 

Lost opportunity
The vision of a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations faltered over India’s failure to deliver the LBA and Teesta deals. Nevertheless, the negotiations the two sides conducted did produce a few positive results. First, it highlighted to Bangladesh that the country would gain from close and friendly relations with India that led to re-evaluation of the anti-India bias in the country not just in the BNP but also in civil society and among other shades of political opinion outside the Awami League. Second, and more importantly, it helped change the BNP’s attitude towards India. The party came around and stated in public that it would support India on its two dream concerns of security and land transit, albeit based on reciprocity.

These are huge changes and extremely positive for future of Bangladesh-India relations. Begum Khaleda Zia even undertook a trip to New Delhi where she reassured Indian leaders about her party’s changed position on India that was a paradigm shift similar to the vision of Sheikh Hasina. In fact, in many quarters outside the ruling party of Bangladesh, there was a very positive feeling that with the BNP favouring positive relations with India, the two countries would be able to build the type of mutually beneficial relations that geopolitics demanded; that Bangladesh would give India land transit and complete security assurances and India would reciprocate with water, trade and land boundary deals and the two countries would have sustainable friendly relations based on the spirit of 1971.

It was Shahabag that derailed relations developing that way. New Delhi returned to the mindset of dealing with Bangladesh through the Awami League, contrary to the commitment Pranab Mukherjee had made while on a visit to Dhaka just before he became the President of India that India believed in relations with Bangladesh and not with a political party. The Shahabag movement that threatened to bury the BNP encouraged New Delhi to forget Pranab Mukherjee’s commitment. 

In fact, when Pranab Mukherjee was in Dhaka on his first overseas visit as the Indian President, he openly supported the Shahabag movement at a time when it was openly pro-Awami League and anti-BNP. The BNP retaliated by staying away from a scheduled meeting of its leader with the Indian President that disappointed many who genuinely wanted Bangladesh-India to build pro-active bilateral relations country to country and not country to political party.

Indo-Bangla ties
Those like Sekhar Gupta who are now urging parties like the BJP and Mamata Banarjee to come on the side of the Congress led government to help deliver the Teesta and LBA deals are also making another major mistake in assessing Bangladesh’s current politics. It is true that New Delhi’s failure to deliver LBA and Teesta deals would go against the AL in the national elections as “killer embarrassment”. However, if India were to deliver the Teesta and the LBA, the chances of the Awami League would not in any major way tilt in its favour because it has messed up its elections chances of a wide array of other major issues of governance to seriously put into jeopardy its chances of re-election even with the two deals in its kitty.

Sekhar Gupta and his friends would get a better grip of Awami League’s chances in the next general elections if they cared to examine why the Awami League backed candidates lost so badly in the recently held city corporation elections. They should also examine whether the acceptance of India in Bangladesh has suffered because of the way it dealt with Dhaka over the Teesta and the LBA deals and whether the voters of Bangladesh would take it favourably or hold it against the ruling party if New Delhi delivered these deals at this late stage to overtly come out to help the Awami League in the next elections. There are good reasons to believe that a pro-India tag at this stage could harm the AL' election chances instead of assisting it. Finally, New Delhi should also consider the fact that no party has won successive terms in Bangladesh.

Time for soul searching
It is heartening that powerful individuals are now taking up the case of Bangladesh for fair treatment. This augurs well for the future of Bangladesh-India relations because it will deter New Delhi and stakeholders not to let Bangladesh down the way it has let down Sheikh Hasina. Meanwhile India should spend some time soul searching why it betrayed Sheikh Hasina instead of intervening in Bangladesh’s politics in a highly partisan way as Sekhar Gupta, the former High Commissioners and others have done but wait for better times when elections are over in Bangladesh. In any case, with the way the politics is being played out in India, itself facing national elections soon where the ruling Congress led coalition is being seriously threatened by the BJP, it does not look like New Delhi would be able to deliver the two deals before a new government is in place there.

Unfortunately, national elections in Bangladesh have been made uncertain by the Awami League’s insistence on holding these on its terms. If the elections were not held, Bangladesh would go up for grabs where Sekhar Gupta’s concerns of an “Af-Pak” type situation emerging on India’s eastern frontier would surely become a reality much quicker. If elections were not held, Bangladesh would become the “fundamentalist hub” instead of becoming the “connectivity hub”. 

However, the concerns of prominent Indians notwithstanding, Bangladeshis are now not too deeply worried or concerned with the LBA or the Teesta deals. They are now worried like they have been never worried since the country became independent. That worry is over whether Bangladesh would have free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” national elections. The need of the hour for Bangladeshis is for some power to convince the AL led government to hold such an election to save the country from sliding towards a civil war.

Caretaker govt. issue
Unfortunately, the AL led government is in no mood to listen to what has emerged as a consensus view both in the country and among Bangladesh friend’s abroad that Bangladesh should have elections under neutral non-party government. The UN Secretary General has also put his weight behind such a consensus view. This notwithstanding, it is India alone that has the power and influence to encourage the AL led Government to see reason and relent and hold elections in a manner that would allow the BNP led opposition to participate. India should use its power and influence over the AL led government not just to save Bangladesh but also to protect its own interests.

Sekhar Gupta and his colleagues who are no doubt interested in Bangladesh’s well being should therefore put their concerns for LBA and Teesta deals aside and write or use any other influence they have for helping Bangladesh to hold free, fair, transparent and inclusive general elections. That would revive India’s acceptability in Bangladesh the way it was accepted in the country in 1971. It would also allow Bangladesh to resolve its current dangerous political predicament democratically where the mainstream parties would be able to let the people decide which party they want in power. 

In that scenario, even the AL would have its chances because no elections are either won or lost till fought. The alternative for the Awami League that of returning for a second term by a one-party election would not keep it in power, not even in a fantasy.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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