Saturday, June 28, 2014

Indian Foreign Minister's visit to Dhaka


Posted : 29 Jun, 2014 00:00:00
Description: rinter
Sushma Swaraj's visit of hope
M. Serajul Islam

The visit of Sushma Swaraj has ended quietly compared to the media hype that the country witnessed leading to it. The ruling party wanted desperately to show the people of Bangladesh that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government would treat it in the same special way as the Congress government had done. The BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) wanted the contrary - that the visit would show that the BJP government would be different and that the visit would reveal that so as to weaken the ruling party's strength in the politics of the country.

The Indian External Affairs Minister came to Dhaka with an agenda of her own that did not consider the interests of either of the two parties that made desperate efforts to please her and through her, the new government in New Delhi. Sushma Swaraj came to Dhaka to convey a message to the people of Bangladesh that the BJP Government will conduct bilateral relations by putting their interests and the country's sovereignty as indispensable elements of their Bangladesh policy. She also came to Dhaka in pursuit of the new government's policy of close relations with the SAARC (South Asian Association for regional Cooperation) countries that was revealed when the SAARC leaders were invited to the inauguration of Narendra Modi.

Thus in her official consultation with the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, the sticky bilateral issues were set aside. The Bangladesh side just flagged some of the outstanding bilateral issues such as the pending Teesta/LBA deals without making any demand so as not to upset the Indian Minister. The Indian Minister also did not raise the sticky issue of the 20 million alleged Bangladeshis. In her meeting with Sheikh Hasina, Sushma Swaraj assured the Bangladesh Prime Minister that New Delhi will deliver the deals "soon" but did not give any time frame like these issues were not important for the visit.

Nevertheless, the visit has been a very important one. In a quiet, unassuming way, Sushma Swaraj with her trademark "tip" and pleasant demeanour, outlined the parameters within which the BJP government will conduct bilateral relations. These parameters are a major shift from the way the Congress had conducted bilateral relations. Henceforth, New Delhi will not play any favourites and relations will be between country-to-country and government-to-government. This will rule out the special position the Awami League (AL) enjoyed under the Congress Government. By emphasizing that the people of Bangladesh will resolve the internal political problems of its politics, New Delhi has underlined that it will not interfere in Bangladesh's politics like the Congress had done for the Awami League. In fact, by stressing that Bangladesh must solve its own political problems, Sushma Swaraj has perhaps unwittingly admitted that such was the case under the Congress Government.

The visit did not just change the parameters, which have been dramatic and substantial. It also revealed New Delhi's view on a major issue with which the AL and BNP are fighting. By meeting Begum Khaleda Zia over the objections of the Awami League, the Indian Foreign Minister established the credibility of the BNP as the main opposition in the country. A week prior to Sushma Swaraj's visit, the UN had recognized the BNP as the main opposition after the faux pas committed by the President's men following his meeting with the UN Secretary General and had urged the AL to negotiate with it for fresh elections. Although Sushma Swaraj did not go to that extent, her meeting with the BNP leader has undermined the ruling party's attempts to sideline the BNP in the politics of the country.

There were other aspects of the visit that revealed that New Delhi does not see the present political situation in Bangladesh the way the AL-led government wants it to. In her speech at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), Sushma Swaraj mentioned without any direct reference to Bangladesh that institution building and tolerance are vital to growth of democracy. Many were quick to see in this a subtle criticism of the way the Awami League has been ruling the country.

The separate press briefings were another aspect of the visit that underlined that New Delhi and Dhaka are on different wavelengths. Dhaka wanted joint press briefing to give the impression to the people of Bangladesh about the thickness of its relations. Indians demanded separate briefings to convey the contrary view, and got it, that the Indian Minister left the MEA's Spokesman to handle. In Bangladesh's case, it was the Foreign Minister who briefed the media.

The media briefing of the Bangladesh Foreign Minster also underlined that the visit did not go the way the AL wanted. The Minister was defensive in the briefing and took pains to explain that Bangladesh has not granted land transit and the permission given to Indian trucks to use Bangladesh road was a humanitarian gesture. The Bangladesh side highlighted the BCIM-EC as an example of India's interest in making Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub that did not draw any response from the Indian Minister. In fact, on connectivity, the Indian Spokesman said it will be all about connecting the people of the two countries thus setting aside Bangladesh's efforts to use the visit to show New Delhi is as committed to Bangladesh's economic development as was the Congress Government.

Sushma Swaraj's visit was therefore largely a goodwill one. Nevertheless, the fact that she chose Bangladesh as the first country to begin her foreign trips underlines that India values its relations with Bangladesh as important. However, she also undertook the trip to reach out to the people of Bangladesh because the blatant interference of the Congress-led government has pushed India's standing in Bangladesh to its lowest ebb ever. Therefore, through the visit, she has laid down new parameters of bilateral relations to assure the people that it respects Bangladesh's sovereignty and its people. There is perhaps another issue that has led the parameters to be changed. India has not particularly liked the AL-government overtures towards China and its total commitment for Asia's march to world dominance under China's leadership. This message of disapproval has been subtly embedded in the way the visit was undertaken.

Therefore on final analysis, the visit of Sushma Swaraj has not gladdened the hearts of the ruling party. The BNP has gained credibility and will be inspired that the BJP Government will not back the AL government anything like the Congress had done which is the cause of its present nightmarish predicament. However, the visit has not failed to gladden the hearts of many Bangladeshis who believe that India has the power to build or destroy Bangladesh. In that context, the visit of Sushma Swaraj has been a visit of hope for the people of Bangladesh because the parameters that she set within which her government will conduct bilateral relations with Bangladesh will help keep Bangladesh on democratic path and help it to return from the path of disaster towards which it is headed for which the outgoing Congress has played a significant role.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email id is

 June 29, 2014

On Sushma Swaraj’s visit

M. Serajul Islam

The much-hyped visit of Sushma Swaraj was exceptional in many ways. If she had visited any other South Asian country as the External Affairs Minister of a government that had just come to power, she would have expected that country’s stakeholder to have more or less the same expectations in receiving her. Her just concluded visit to Dhaka was however different. The ruling party had one set of expectations; the BNP, , another set of expectations in direct contrast to those of the ruling party. The people as the other major stakeholder had a set of expectations different from the two mainstream parties.

The visit was unusual also from another context. The BJP has a history that should have caused apprehensions among the Bangladeshi stakeholders about what to expect from a party that came to power with a huge mandate riding the wave of Hindu fundamentalism. Also, as the opposition party, the BJP had obstructed the Congress government from delivering the Teesta and LDA deals to Bangladesh. Additionally, the BJP had campaigned in the elections against Bangladesh. Narendra Modi had no inhibitions in telling voters that if elected, the BJP government would send packing 20 million alleged Bangladeshis in India, across the border.

Therefore, Sushma Swaraj should have expected a very unfriendly environment in Dhaka. Instead, the ruling AL showed no intention of embarrassing her on Teesta and LBA deals for which the AL led government had given India unequivocal support on its extremely critical security needs and land transit on trial basis, and instead assured Sushma Swaraj the same support it had given the outgoing Congress government. The ruling party did not also express worries about BJP’s history or its anti-Bangladesh rhetoric. The BNP that is know for its critical views about India was also equally interested in pleasing the Indian Minister instead of raising during her visit, critical views about India.

The reasons for such stance of the AL and the BNP towards Sushma Swaraj’s visit are embedded in the nature of Bangladesh’s politics and in the partisan role-played in it by the outgoing Congress Government. That government had supported the AL against both opposition inside Bangladesh and abroad to hold the January 5 elections that helped the Awami League to return to power. The political situation for the AL led government has deteriorated since the elections and pressure from western countries for fresh elections has mounted. Therefore, the AL needs the type of support from New Delhi as it had received under the Congress Government very badly. It therefore hoped that Sushma Swaraj would convey such support of the new BJP government.

The BNP has been badly served by the Congress Government. It feels that had the Congress not interfered for the AL, it would have been able to force the government to hold participatory elections. That did not happen. Instead, the Congress Government took upon itself the task of gaining for the AL led government credibility for the January 5 elections where the western nations and the UN raised serious question about its credibility and legitimacy. The BNP was therefore excited that the Congress was routed in the Indian elections. It has been expecting that the new Indian Government would see the mistakes of the Congress Government and carry forward relations with Bangladesh where the interests of Bangladesh would come ahead of those of the Awami League.

The outcome of the visit has not made the Awami League happy. The Indian Minister made it clear that under the BJP Government; Bangladesh-India relations would be people to people and that in such relations, interests of any political party would be of no consideration. In her speech at the BIISS, Sushma Swaraj underlined the issues of institution building and tolerance and their importance to democracy. Reading between the lines, the emphasis could be construed as criticisms of the way the AL is governing. Further, the emphasis of the Official Spokesman Syed Akbaruddin about relations with people “that transcends any forms of government” is a clear departure from the parameters within which the outgoing Congress Government had conducted bilateral relations with Bangladesh.

Another major message that the visit conveyed to Bangladesh was given through the meeting of the Indian Minister with Begum Khaleda Zia. By meeting her, the Indians followed the direction set by the UN following the faux pas over the President’s meeting with the UNSG. The UN, through a most unusual statement on that meeting underlined that the BNP is the country’s main opposition party and that the ruling party must hold talks with it for fresh elections. India did not go as far as demanding fresh elections but by the meeting with Begum Khaleda Zia, it raised subtle questions about the January 5 elections and established the position of the BNP as the party represents the opposition in Bangladesh.

In the hype over whether the ruling party or the BNP scored the points from the visit, very little attention has been paid to the substantive issues of the visit. The Indians, notwithstanding what the Bangladeshi parties wanted, undertook the visit as one of goodwill. Therefore Sushma Swaraj simply stated that India is going to deliver the Teesta/LBA deals but said little else. She did not provide a time frame of delivery although for the LBA, the BJP government needs just the political will to deliver.

The Indians used the visit to score points for its new foreign policy direction, namely to be seen as the regional leader. In his inauguration, Narendra Modi had invited all SAARC leaders as part of that policy. Sushma Swaraj’s visit was also undertaken under this new foreign policy initiative. Nevertheless, she used the visit also to establish a fresh approach towards Bangladesh; no doubt by acknowledging the fact that the Congress’ policy of favouring the AL has resulted in India becoming unpopular across Bangladesh. Thus in her speech at BISS, in her talks with the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister and Begum Zia and in the media briefing, the theme of the visit has been a clear one. The BJP government is interested to reach the people of Bangladesh to regain the popularity India has lost in the country under the Congress.

Two other aspects of the visit have hinted that the BJP government would be different from the outgoing Congress Government. One was that the two sides held separate press conferences as wanted by the Indian side. The separate press conferences suggest that the Indians did not want to be seen too close with the AL led government in its efforts to reach out to the people of Bangladesh. The second was that although the Indian Minister left press briefing to the MEA Spokesman, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister held the press conference of the Bangladesh side. In that conference, he made efforts to explain that Bangladesh has given India permission to use its roads for humanitarian reasons to dismiss perceptions in the country that it has granted to India, the land transit. He also mentioned about the BCIM-EC and India’s interest in it to convey the perception that the AL led government is already getting close to the new Indian Government. The Indians ignored the issue, perhaps because New Delhi has questions about Dhaka’s over-eagerness towards China..

The Bangladesh-India relations have not been conducted under the Congress Government in any professional manner. As a consequence, although India has gained undue advantages, some extremely important, it has been achieved at great harm to Indian image in Bangladesh and by pushing the politics of Bangladesh towards un-democratic path. It appears like the Indian side considered these points seriously. New Delhi knows that both the AL and the BNP are more than prepared to be equally with India and that it will not be necessary for the new BJP Government to play favourites with the two parties of Bangladesh to further its interests. Therefore, for long-term interests of India, the new Indian Government has opted to reach out to the people of Bangladesh.

These messages that have come out distinctly from the visit of Sushma Swaraj has gladdened the people of Bangladesh because they believe that India has the ability to encourage Bangladesh towards democracy. The Indian Minister with the trademark tip on her forehead and pleasant demeanour has impressed the people of Bangladesh although the same cannot be said of the AL. The BNP has been reasonably satisfied with the visit because the BJP government would not play favourites in Bangladesh anymore. Nevertheless, the BJP government must not try to keep Bangladesh satisfied on promises alone, like the outgoing Congress Government, and it must find ways to deliver the Teesta and LBA deals without further delay to improve India’s image in Bangladesh and Bangladesh-India relations on track.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email is HYPERLINK ""
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