Dhaka calling

Constructive Indo-Bangladesh ties can be a major stabilising factor for the south Asian region as a whole.

The external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid’s visit to Bangladesh a few days back will go some way in underscoring the importance that India attaches to its ties with Bangladesh. He has laid the groundwork for the visit of the President, Pranab Mukherjee, to Dhaka next month. New Delhi has not been a great partner to Dhaka so far and by not signing the deals that matter most to Dhaka, is alienating pro-India forces in the country. This is a time of great political upheaval in Bangladesh as the nation comes to terms with its identity.

Mukherjee had visited Dhaka in 2010 as the then finance minister to mark the signing of a $1 billion loan deal, the largest line of credit received by Bangladesh under a single agreement. India’s Exim Bank had signed this line of credit agreement with Bangladesh’s economic relations division and the loan was be used to develop railways and communications infrastructure in Bangladesh.

This deal carried 1.75 per cent annual interest and would be repayable in 20 years, including a five-year grace period. It was offered during Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010. This was followed by the two countries signing a 35-year electricity transmission deal under which India will be exporting up to 500 mw of power to Bangladesh. Dhaka has also signed a $1.7 billion pact with the National Thermal Power Corporation for the construction of two coal-fired plants in southern Bangladesh. Despite these initiatives India failed to build on the momentum provided by Hasina’s visit with its failure to implement two major bilateral agreemebnts – finalisation of land boundary demarcation and the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river.

Bangladesh is rightly upset at the slow pace in the implementation of these. Hasina has taken great political risk to put momentum back into bilateral ties. But there has been no serious attempt on India’s part to settle outstanding issues.

Bureaucratic inertia and lack of political will have prevented many of the deals from getting followed through. Dhaka is seeking response to its demand for the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi products. India has failed to reciprocate Hasina’s overtures. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has used the India-Bangladesh bonhomie under Hasina to attack the government for toeing India’s line. India-Bangladesh ties had reached their lowest ebb during the 2001-2006 tenure of the BNP government.

India has failed to capitalise on the propitious political circumstances in Bangladesh, damaging its credibility even further. New Delhi’s window of opportunity will not exist forever. Anti-Indian sentiments can be marginalised if India allows Bangladesh to harness its economic growth and present it with greater opportunities. Yet India remains obsessed with ‘AfPak’ and has failed to give due attention to Bangladesh.

Begum Khaleda Zia’s first visit to India came in March 2006, at the end of her term as prime minister. In contrast, Hasina visited India in January 2010, just a year into her term as the premier. New Delhi rolled out the red carpet to welcome Hasina as its first state guest of this decade. Overcoming formidable hurdles, Hasina’s Awami League had swept to a decisive electoral victory in December 2008.

Domestic political imperatives

This tale of two visits is a reflection of how India’s relationship with Bangladesh seems to have become hostage to domestic political imperatives in Dhaka. It is ironic that this should happen given India’s central role in helping establish an independent Bangladesh and the cultural affinities and ethnic linkages they share. But friends are as temporary as enemies in international politics. Instead, it is a state’s national interests that determine its foreign policy. In the case of India and Bangladesh, these interests have been diverging for some years now, making this bilateral relationship susceptible to the domestic political narratives in New Delhi and Dhaka.

India is the central issue around which Bangladeshi political parties define their foreign policy agenda. This shouldn’t be a surprise given India’s size and geographic linkages. Over the years political parties opposing the Awami League have tended to define themselves in opposition to India, in effect portraying Awami League as India’s ‘stooge’. Moreover, radical Islamic groups have tried to buttress their own ‘Islamic identities’ by attacking India.

Ever since she has come to power in December 2008, Sheikh Hasina has faced challenges from right-wing parties as well as fundamentalist organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen which enjoy Pakistan’s support. These groups are united in undermining efforts to improve ties with New Delhi.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka in September 2011 and was all set to sign the Teesta pact. But West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made sure that his plan got derailed at the last minute, damaging India’s credibility significantly. The prime minister ultimately managed to sign the land boundary agreement that demarcates territorial sovereignty along the 4,000 km Indo-Bangladesh frontier. But even in this case, where Bangladesh has ratified this pact, India has failed to move forward because of the need for a constitutional amendment which requires support from the main opposition party, the BJP. India has finally signed a liberalised visa agreement and a landmark extradition treaty with Bangladesh recently that is likely to pave the way for the deportation of insurgents and criminals from Bangladesh.

Salman Khurshid has been able to mollify some concerns in Dhaka about Indian intentions by making it clear that New Delhi will be taking the two pacts on the Teesta waters and land boundary to their logical conclusion soon. But the political dispensation in New Delhi should recognise the dangers of playing party politics with India’s foreign and security policy. India is witnessing rising turmoil all around its borders and, therefore, a stable, moderate Bangladesh is in its long-term interests. Constructive Indo-Bangladesh ties can be a major stabilising factor for the south Asian region as a whole. India can’t afford to ignore Dhaka.

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