June 10, 2014
Sushma's visit: Will it answer Bangladesh's worries?
M. Serajul Islam
What will Narendra Modi do with Bangladesh? This has been the subject of concern in the country's politics ever since the new Indian Prime Minister led the Bharatiya Party (BJP) to the biggest victory by a party/alliance in the last 30 years. Never before has the attitude of an Indian government towards Bangladesh been the subject of so much discussion in the country. In 1971, before the people of Bangladesh had time to worry about Indian stand, New Delhi not just had backed the Bangladesh war of liberation 100 per cent; it had also taken upon itself the task of looking after the 10 million refugees who had fled to India to escape the genocide perpetrated in the country by the Pakistani military.
New Delhi has always felt comfortable dealing with an Awami League government in Dhaka. When India had a Congress government and Bangladesh an AL-led government, then New Delhi felt that dealing with Bangladesh was like dealing with a power that could not be anymore friendly. But the BJP has been a little different and has in the past not shown any preference between the two mainstream political parties - the Awami League and the BNP - in conducting bilateral relations with Bangladesh. In 2001, when the BNP had come to power with a 2/3rd majority, the BJP had made genuine advances towards the BNP for establishing pro-active bilateral relations but those efforts were frustrated by the BNP.
When I was posted in Japan, I had an in-depth discussion with the Indian Ambassador to Japan Mani Tripathi on this aspect of Bangladesh-India relations. Mani Tripathi had gone to Japan on a cross posting from Dhaka where he was the Indian High Commissioner at the time of the 2001 national elections in Bangladesh. The Indian diplomat had told me that as the High Commissioner in Dhaka, he knew that the Awami League had no chance in wining the 2001 elections and that BNP would sweep the seats. He had therefore alerted New Delhi well ahead to be ready to deal with the incoming BNP Government. His initiative resulted in New Delhi being the first country to congratulate the BNP's victory and also the first to name a Special Envoy to visit Dhaka.
In both the cases, the BNP Government spurned the BJP Government's positive moves. The BNP Government, according to Mani Tripathi, announced the messages of congratulation from other countries before the one from India and did the same with the issue of Special Envoy although in both the instances, the BJP Government reached the BNP Government ahead of the other countries. It is not just the 1999-2004 BJP Government that had tried to deal with Bangladesh on a country-to-country basis; all non-Congress Governments of India had likewise done so. In fact, Bangladesh has benefitted more under non-Congress governments because those governments considered the interests of Bangladesh ahead of those of any political party in the country. The AL-led government achieved the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1996 and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Agreement in 1997 under non-Congress governments while under the Congress Government in its last term, it was denied the Teesta and the LBA deals after Bangladesh had delivered to India, its security interests and land transit on a trial basis.
The present BJP Government has taken office at a time like never before as far as India-Bangladesh relations are concerned. The Congress Government had gone overboard in dealing with Bangladesh by considering the political interests of only the Awami League. It directly intervened in Bangladesh's internal affairs in the context of January 05 elections to ensure the Awami League returned to power a second time. It did so because it argued that if the AL did not return to power, the religious fundamentalist would and that would not be in India's interests. The other argument for Congress' blatant interference in Bangladesh, of course, was that the AL would support India's interests in a way New Delhi wanted which of course was the case.
The fact that the BJP is itself a religious fundamentalist party has destroyed the Congress' secular argument and therefore has removed the major foundation for New Delhi's need to interfere in Bangladesh blatantly as the Congress had done. That leaves the issue of India's national interest and how to achieve it as the only issue that would determine the BJP Government's policy towards Bangladesh. The AL-led government has publicly assured the new government ion Delhi that it would give it same support as it had given to the Congress Government. It has overlooked the BJP's role under the Congress Government when it was the reason why the Teesta and the LBA deals were not delivered. Further, the AL-led government has also overlooked the BJP's other anti-Bangladesh stands, notably on the alleged Bangladeshis in India. Therefore, the BJP should only be too happy to deal with the AL-led government because it has offered India full support for furthering its interests in Bangladesh without demanding the two pending deals or demanding withdrawal of the threat to "push back" the alleged Bangladeshis.
Jane's Defense Weekly (JDW) in a recent review of the direction of Bangladesh-India relations under the BJP Government has therefore predicted that it would follow the trend set by the Congress government. In fact, the BJP Government would be stupid to do otherwise under normal circumstances. However, the circumstances are hardly normal. First, the BNP would have been the party the BJP would now be dealing with had the January 05 elections been a normal, democratic one. Second, there is deep resentment in the country over the January 05 election. Third, the western countries have questioned the January 05 elections and continue to urge the Bangladesh government to hold participatory elections. Fourth, the AL-led government has so far been unable to win over the people to encourage them to forget the nature of January 05 elections. Finally, the BNP has changed its India policy dramatically and has offered to the BJP the same friendship as the AL-led government.
The above-mentioned factors would no doubt be at the back of Sushma Swaraj's mind as she comes to Bangladesh at the end of the month. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had requested Narendra Modi to consider Bangladesh his "second home" and make it the first country for starting his overseas trips. That he would be going to Bhutan instead and that Bangladesh is not yet in the list of countries he would be visiting up to September would suggest that Narendra Modi has not fallen for the Prime Minister's "second home" bait. He would instead be sending his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Dhaka no doubt to assess the political situation in Bangladesh first-hand. The new foreign affairs team in New Delhi must have meanwhile no doubt alerted the PMO in New Delhi about the political predicament of the AL-led government and that in the country and among the western countries, there is serious concern over the legitimacy of the government.
The BJP government and in particular Narendra Modi would need something that the Congress Government did not - namely American goodwill. For US goodwill, Narendra Modi would be visiting Washington in September. Bangladesh had figured to some extent in the coolness of Washington-New Delhi relations under the Congress Government. No doubt, Bangladesh would figure again in Obama-Modi talks as it had between Obama-Manmohon Singh when the latter had visited Washington in September 2013. In fact, the BJP government's Bangladesh policy would be clear only after the Obama-Modi talks in Washington. There are reasons to believe that those talks could be different from those between President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohon Singh.
Sushma Swaraj would not be expected to promise much to the AL-led government as according to JDW, "the Teesta river and land disputes over water flow from Bangladesh to India are likely to remain unresolved". There is no reason for her to make BNP happy either. In fact, as the BNP is no longer in parliament, she would not be expected to meet the BNP leadership. Nevertheless, unless she goes into some sort of denial, there is no reason for her not to see on her visit to Dhaka that the Congress had pursued a policy with Bangladesh that was wrong and could not be sustained because the country is yearning for new elections. Most importantly, she cannot unless in denial, fail to see how the Congress' policy in placing the interests of the Awami League ahead of the interests of Bangladesh has harmed India's standing in the country.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador.