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Why India must pay attention to Bangladesh

By Harsh V Pant
March 08, 2013 14:54 IST
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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. It can’t afford to ignore Dhaka, says Harsh V Pant. 

President Pranab Mukherjee was in Bangladesh recently at a time of great political upheaval as the nation comes to terms with its identity. Despite widespread protests by by the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party against an unprecedented Shahbag upsurge by those demanding the death penalty for the war criminals of 1971, Mukherjee stuck to his visit, sending a clear signal that India values strong ties with Bangladesh.

Mukherjee also signalled that India remains committed to an early solution on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river and the long-pending boundary issue. 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. Mukherjee’s visit was an important course correction.

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 percent 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 agreements -- 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 has 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 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 ‘Af-Pak’ 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 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.

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 the 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.

The greatest challenge that Hasina overcame in her first year was the mutiny by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles, which erupted in February, 2009. It soon became clear that the mutineers were being instigated by supporters of the opposition led by the BNP and others connected to the Jamaat-e-Islami. India supported Hasina’s crackdown on the mutineers by sealing its borders with Bangladesh and forcing back mutineers attempting to cross over.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka in September 2011 and was all set to sign the Teesta pact. But West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta 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 kilometres 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.

Mukherjee 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. It can’t afford to ignore Dhaka.

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Harsh V Pant