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India reaching out to other parties

Publication Date : 31-10-2012


Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia left for India on October 28 for a week's, visit which is important for both sides. It has provided each others' perspectives on bilateral relations at the highest political level.

The bottom line for India is to find a friendly government emerging in Bangladesh after the next parliamentary election. India has also invited the heads of two major parties of Bangladesh to New Delhi to have a sense of the ways the political situation has been developing within Bangladesh.

Some Indian newspapers have described the visit of BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) chairperson as "mending fences", since during the BNP rule in 2001-06 India had complained to the Bangladesh government about its security concerns; as Bangladesh territory was allegedly allowed to be used for training and sanctuary by insurgents from northeastern troubled-states.

Some analysts say that the period was one of the lowest points in the bilateral relations between these neighbours.

It is assumed that the BNP chairperson must have a few important messages for India. The first one would be that a credible, inclusive and fair parliamentary election is held in 2014 in Bangladesh under the neutral caretaker government and not under AL government. If that cannot be maintained, the BNP would not participate in the election and it is possibly argued non-participation of BNP would result in serious political upheaval in the country; which may impact on India as well.

Second, whatever Bangladesh agrees to provide to India, a reciprocity must follow to satisfy Bangladeshi people letting them know that a fair deal has been signed with India.

Finally, the killing of Bangladeshis on the Indo-Bangla border must be stopped because it continues to increase the anti-India sentiment among the people living in Bangladesh.

On the other hand, it is assumed that India wanted assurance from BNP that Bangladesh territory should not be used for activities inimical to India and might indirectly hint to de-linking itself from the religion-based party, Jammat-e-Islami.

Furthermore, India might sought affirmation that whatever agreements were signed with the Awami League (AL) government would continue to effectively harness their respective resources for the good of the peoples' of the two countries. Observers say that BNP may have realised that no country is a permanent ally or enemy in the world and what is paramount is its national interests.

The national interests of Bangladesh, we should note, appear to stand on two pillars: security and development.

Security does not mean only territorial security; it includes security in water, food, energy, health, environment and the people.

Development includes not only economic growth but alleviation of poverty among people. They can be achieved through sub-regional and regional cooperation. And here India's cooperation plays a major role.

While AL government has moved quickly to address Delhi's concerns on cross-border terrorism and connectivity to the North-East, India could not sign the most important pledge -- the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement -- during India's prime minister's visit to Dhaka last year on September 6, because the West Bengal's chief minister torpedoed it.

All other agreements signed with Bangladesh could not remove the public perception that the visit ended in failure.

This was perceived a serious setback for both the ruling governments of Bangladesh and India. Some suggest that the Indian prime minister should not have visited Dhaka until this important issue had been sorted out with West Bengal earlier; at the time a partner of New Delhi coalition government.

Often the agreements are not fulfilled by India and the main reason, according to Indian journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray was that "Bangladesh may sizzle but it sizzles on a back-burner of Indian priorities" (July 2009 in Kolkata's The Telegraph). Krishnan Srinivasan, India's former Foreign Secretary, in his book "Jamdani Revolution", cites another reason: "Indian government has tended to allow the hardliners and Hindu chauvinists to set the agenda for its policy towards Bangladesh."

The other factor is that India is a federal country and states have their own political goals different from those of the Centre. Bangladesh's pending issues in some way or other affect one of the five states which surround Bangladesh (West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram).

Unless the involved state and New Delhi agree, India's central government, irrespective of its political affiliations, will find itself in difficulty in fulfilling the promises made with Bangladesh. For example, the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty was signed with the active support of former chief minister of West Bengal, late Jyoti Basu. This is a harsh reality which Bangladesh government, media and people may not ignore.

At the next election in India in 2014, the Congress-led government may not be in power and either BJP-led coalition or a Third party coalition may hold power in New Delhi. In that case, the New Delhi government will again find it tough to meet its obligations with Bangladesh unless the affected states concur with the centre.

The question is why does the central government in New Delhi sign an agreement with Bangladesh without first resolving the domestic issues? India may only sign agreements with Bangladesh which it can implement, otherwise in future Bangladesh will hesitate to conclude ineffective "paper" agreements with India.

Meanwhile, the political dynamics in the region is changing. Bangladesh shares borders with Myanmar which is not only going through internal reforms toward democracy but also is changing its foreign policy toward Western countries, India and Japan, balancing with China. Bangladesh's access to the open sea is another asset for commercial and strategic reasons.

Bangladesh is a near neighbour to China and if the road between Katmandu and Lhasa is connected, Dhaka will be able to interact with Beijing through Nepal. Bangladesh and China are interested to connect Kunming (Yunnan province) by road through Myanmar and hopefully the project will be activated as early as possible.

Geography has made Bangladesh and India neighbours. In the inter-connected world, Bangladesh seeks a modern partnership with India on the basis of mutual respect and equality in meeting the challenges to global, regional and sub-regional economic growth, peace and security.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.


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