12th October, 2013
Saturday, 12 October 2013
A couple of India’s most recent interactions with Bangladesh have raised both interest and eyebrows. Amidst great fanfare as if nothing was amiss between the two neighbours, the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India, over videoconference, launched the transfer of 250MW of Indian electricity to the Bangladesh national grid. In the same videoconference, the two also laid the foundation of the Ramphal 2000 MW coal fired joint venture electricity project. The sale of electricity was welcomed because of its shortage in the country although some raised issue with its timing. The Ramphal project raised only eyebrows because it has become controversial in Bangladesh. Thus many have questioned India’s motives over its sudden interest in Bangladesh.
The questions have been raised because these developments have come after India wasted the best chance the two countries ever had to further bilateral interests to a new paradigm. Sheikh Hasina had set the direction for such a shift when she delivered to India two dreams it always expected from Bangladesh, namely, full cooperation on its security concerns and land transit that was offered on a trial basis. The Bangladesh Prime Minister took great political risks and showed vision to deliver to India these dreams. All India needed to do was to set its own house in order and deliver to Bangladesh the Teesta Water Sharing and LBA deals and keep its commitment for a zero tolerance on border killings that India could have done easily if it had shown even a part of the political will of the Bangladesh Prime Minister.
India’s failure to deliver the Teesta and LBA deals disappointed Bangladesh and pushed the AL led Government into a political tight spot. Even important Indians thought so. An IBN/CNN/The Hindu poll revealed that to Indians, Bangladesh is the country they could “trust” most. Analysts explained that respondents chose Bangladesh because they felt India had betrayed Bangladesh by failing to keep its promises after Dhaka went out of its way to please it.
New Delhi too realized that it had let Bangladesh down and had made serious efforts in recent times to deliver the deals. With Indian elections too close, the BJP and Trinamool refused to support the Congress led government in these efforts because they did not want to give the Congress political mileage.
Meanwhile, New Delhi’s failure to deliver the Teesta and the LBA deals has become a major election issue in Bangladesh. The reason is a simple one. In negotiating with India, the Bangladesh side trusted the Indians almost blindly. Bangladesh negotiators did not just bargain away Bangladesh’s two major playing cards with India; they did not even ask the Indians what they wanted in return. They just assumed that India would deliver it and it would be an “embarrassment” to ask! In fact, often the Bangladeshi negotiators were more eager to protect Indian interests than theirs. They openly expressed contempt at those who cautioned about bargaining away the land transit and security cards without any guarantee or India’s intentions.
New Delhi did more damage to bilateral relations than just fail to deliver the deals. First, it did not alert Dhaka about its domestic problems with BJP and Trinamool leaving Dhaka to believe that the two deals would be handed to Bangladesh during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh in September 2011. Second, when Trinamool and BJP put spanners on the deals, New Delhi assured Dhaka that the deal would be delivered “soon” leaving Bangladeshi Ministers to count in 2/3 months as the maximum delay for these to be handed to Bangladesh. In fact, the Bangladesh Ministers/ Advisers who should have expressed anger and frustration over New Delhi’s failures went to the media and stated that they understood New Delhi’s domestic compulsions over the two issues!
The last chance of the delivery of deals ended when Sheikh Hasina met the Indian Prime Minister on the sidelines of the United Nations in New York last month. There was media build up before that meeting on the two issues; the Indian Prime Minister would communicate some firm date of delivery. Instead, all Sheikh Hasina received from her Indian counterpart was a re-iteration that India stood committed to deliver the deals to Bangladesh. Thus, in dealing with Bangladesh, New Delhi did not just push the AL-led Government into a political tight spot; it pushed its own position in Bangladesh into an all-time low.
That was quite a contrast to the high expectations that Bangladesh negotiators had built about what it would get from India after Sheikh Hasina had made the bold and courageous moves with the security and land transit concessions. In fact, had New Delhi been trustworthy and kept its promises, the two countries would have achieved more than the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina had envisioned. With India’s concessions on trade and the promise of Bangladesh becoming a connectivity hub of the region tied to the successful end of negotiations, even the BNP that New Delhi was wary about because of its anti-India stance had come around to take positive note of the direction that Bangladesh-India relations were progressing. Begum Khaleda Zia visited India for talks with Indian leaders following an official invitation from New Delhi. Her talks were positive. She welcomed the negotiations of the AL led government with New Delhi but said that such negotiations must be based on reciprocity.
Thus many in Bangladesh believe that New Delhi took its recent initiatives out of a feeling of guilt for pushing the Awami League into a political corner with its failure to deliver the Teesta and the LBA deals. They feel that New Delhi has made these offers to show to the people of Bangladesh that the AL led government did the right thing in placing its trust on New Delhi. On the point of proving its trust to Bangladesh, the issue of sale of electricity has been positive. It has been welcomed because of the dire need of electricity in the country. Nevertheless, people have also questioned why New Delhi waited so long to do this good deed. The doubters were asking questions whether New Delhi did this good turn to Bangladesh or to the Awami League to help in the elections.
The issue of Ramphal qualitatively falls in a different category. India entered into this project with Bangladesh not just divided but also with all the environmental and civil society groups opposing it. The BNP has not just said it would abandon the project if it came to power; it has accused the AL led government for offering Ramphal to India to woo it to support its plans to return to power through a one-party election. Thus, by going forward with the Ramphal project, the Indians have added a new item with which to disappoint the people of Bangladesh; a move that would make sense if only India was thinking of relations with the Awami League instead of Bangladesh.
If New Delhi took the two decisions to back the Awami League to encourage it to hold elections without the BNP, it could be a decision that it would regret. People of all shades of opinion in Bangladesh, except those in the ruling party, want the AL led Government to hold elections where the BNP would participate. All of Bangladesh’s friends abroad also want that to happen. Therefore by supporting the AL instead of reasoning with it for “inclusive” elections, India would be going against the wishes of the rest of the people of Bangladesh who are in the majority, going against international opinion and against democracy because if the BNP were kept out of the national elections, those elections would be anything but democratic. In fact, if the eerie feeling among the public that India’s latest moves in Bangladesh have been designed to help the AL is correct, then New Delhi would in fact be assisting the Awami League to push Bangladesh towards the apocalypse.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador