Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia left for India on October 28 for a week's, visit, which is important for both sides. It will give an opportunity to hear 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 other major parties in Bangladesh to New Delhi, to get a sense of the ways the political situation has been developing within Bangladesh.
Some Indian newspapers have described the visit of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson as “mending fences”, because during the BNP’s rule from 2001-2006 India had complained to the Bangladesh government about its security concerns, as Bangladesh territory was allegedly allowed to be used for training and as a sanctuary for insurgents from troubled northeastern Indian states.
Some analysts say that the period was one of the lowest points in the bilateral relations between the neighbours.
It is assumed that the BNP chair 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 a neutral caretaker government and not under the current Awami League (AL) government. If that cannot be maintained, the BNP may not participate in the election and it is argued that the non-participation of the BNP would possibly result in serious political upheaval in the country; which may affect India as well.
Second, whatever Bangladesh agrees to provide to India, 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 anti-India sentiment among the people in Bangladesh.
On the other hand, it is assumed that India wants assurance from the BNP that Bangladesh territory should not be used for activities inimical to India, and might indirectly hint at de-linking itself from the religion-based party, Jammat-e-Islami.
Furthermore, India might seek affirmation that whatever agreements are signed with the AL government will continue to effectively harness respective resources for the good of the people of the two countries. Observers say that the BNP may have realised that no country is a permanent ally or enemy in the world, and what is paramount is national interests.
The national interests of Bangladesh appear to stand on two pillars: security and development.
Security does not mean only territorial security; it includes security in water, food, energy, health, the environment and the people.
Development includes not only economic growth but the alleviation of poverty among the people. These can be achieved through sub-regional and regional cooperation. And here, India’s cooperation plays a major role.
While the AL government has moved quickly to address Delhi’s concerns on cross-border terrorism and connectivity to the northeast, India could not sign the most important pledge – the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement – during the Indian prime minister’s visit to Dhaka last year on September 6, because West Bengal’s chief minister torpedoed it.
All other agreements signed with Bangladesh cannot remove the public perception that the visit ended in failure.
This was perceived as 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, at the time a partner of the New Delhi coalition government.
Often, agreements are not fulfilled by India, and the main reason, according to Indian journalist Sunanda K.Datta-Ray is 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: “The Indian government has tended to allow 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 central government. Bangladesh’s pending issues in some way or other affect one of the five states that 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 the former chief minister of West Bengal, the late Jyoti Basu. This is a harsh reality that the Bangladesh government, media and people should not ignore.
At the next election in India in 2014, the Congress-led government may not return to power, and either a BJP-led coalition or a third-party coalition may take 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 agreements with Bangladesh without first resolving the domestic issues? India should only sign agreements with Bangladesh that it can implement, otherwise, in future, Bangladesh will hesitate to conclude ineffective “paper” agreements with India.
Meanwhile, the political dynamics in the region are changing. Bangladesh shares a border 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 against the influence of 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 Kathmandu and Lhasa is connected, Dhaka will be able to interact with Beijing through Nepal. Bangladesh and China are interested in connecting Kunming (in 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 this 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.
Barrister Harun Ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh ambassador to the UN, Geneva.