Khaleda Zia, former Bangladesh PM and Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson, met India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj last week in Dhaka. In an exclusive interview at her office Sunday, she spoke of her expectations of the Narendra Modi government, her thoughts on the previous UPA government, and politics in Bangladesh.
How was your meeting with Sushma Swaraj?
It was a very friendly meeting… She is a very nice person. We discussed bilateral issues. For example, regarding border killings, she said efforts will be made to bring it down to zero. On Teesta and Land Boundary Agreement, she has assured these will be done. She talked about people-to-people relations. Such issues come in the way. In the dry season, water flow is blocked, then people are angry India is not giving us water… India has to be like a big neighbour. We have such a long border, there could be problems, but to kill people, that makes people angry and agitated… She was receptive to our concerns on the unsettled bilateral issues [and] my proposal to strengthen people-to-people contact.
How do you see the Narendra Modi government’s approach towards Bangladesh?
They are yet to settle down. I have sent two letters to Modi, one after his victory and the other after the swearing-in. One expects the new government to seek visionary ways to strengthen regional ties in South Asia… He invited SAARC leaders to his oath-taking ceremony. That was a welcome initiative and demonstrated his farsightedness. It is also recognition of SAARC — conceived by my late husband President Ziaur Rahman more than three decades ago. Now, Modi has taken an interest in this… We feel that’s good for the region… We want our country to develop, we want India to develop as well.
What do you think of Modi as a leader?
It is for the people of India to judge Modi. His focus on good governance and the economy is something the people of India would welcome.
Has he invited you to visit India?
Yes, we had a conversation when I congratulated him. He invited me.
Are you planning to visit?
You know what the situation in the country is now, I am quite busy. There is no democracy in this country. Ninety-five per cent of people are with us, and they want free, fair, impartial and inclusive elections.
Do you feel disappointed that the previous Indian government did not back you during the elections?
Their foreign secretary [Sujatha Singh] came here, and said publicly that H M Ershad should participate, otherwise elections will not take place and the fundamentalists will come to power. She tried to convince us also, but could not. We told her why we could not participate in the elections. We are a political party, not an underground outfit, but if elections are not fair, there is no point taking part. Later, Ershad said openly that he will not contest. But later, through some way… I don’t know whether the Congress-led government played a role; many believe that [it did], since the foreign secretary said such things… In fact, Ershad said later that the foreign secretary put pressure on him. And they [India] are the only ones to give recognition to the polls. Even the Commonwealth and the UN said that they don’t support a one-party election… There were no election observers, so they have not accepted that. And people of this country have not accepted that. Therefore, it is an illegal government. The international community is asking them to have elections soon.
Awami League understands that they don’t have legitimacy in the country or outside. Awami League is telling us that you first recognise us as a legitimate government, then we will enter into a dialogue. So, their illegitimacy has been exposed… I told Sushma that no country has witnessed an election in which 154 candidates have been elected unopposed, out of 300 in parliament. There could be 2, 4, 5… but 154? All the cabinet ministers have been elected unopposed. In Sheikh Hasina’s case, there was no contest, but they put up dummy candidates to show that there was a contest.
What do you think is different between the new BJP-led government and the Congress-led one?
It is too early to make any definite judgment. It is again up to the people of India to make that judgment. However, any change raises hope for something better. Our interest is to see what happens in the area of our bilateral relations and in the region as a whole… His government’s focus on building relations with people in neighbouring countries and not just with any particular political party is a significant change.
Do you feel the Congress-led government did not keep its promises to Bangladesh?
That is the perception of the people of Bangladesh. Actually it is the failure, or lack of will, of our government to protect the interests of the people of Bangladesh on unresolved issues that turned out to be the bigger problem.
Do you feel that that government was too close to the Awami League government and that did not augur well for Bangladesh?
Again, this is the perception here. The people of Bangladesh sincerely desire good relations with India. This relationship should address the interests of the people of the two countries, not any particular political party or individual… I don’t want to hold anybody responsible but Awami League forced them to do this. And the Indian government gave its support… Ershad talks about it even now, that he had not gone for the elections, that he was forced to go for it, that he had sent his withdrawal letter, that it was not accepted. So, the perception is that the Indian government played a role.
How do you see West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s role in blocking the Teesta water-sharing pact?
During the visit of Manmohan Singh, it was announced that an agreement on sharing of Teesta waters would be signed, although the people of Bangladesh did not know the details. At the last minute, the agreement was not signed on the ground that Mamata was opposed to it. The people of Bangladesh. don’t know what really happened… I have not met Mamata, and I don’t know who blocked it. Our government says so. Hasina says so.
Do you feel that the BJP will be able to push the Land Boundary Agreement through in Parliament, or that it will get blocked again by Mamata, or by the BJP’s Assam unit?
The agreement was signed in 1974. Bangladesh ratified it the same year but India has not yet done so… The people in the enclaves are undergoing immense suffering. They have been living in a state of uncertainty for so long. This has a negative effect on our relationship. Now that the BJP is in office with such a huge majority, it is expected that this will be resolved soon.
You interacted with three Indian prime ministers in your two terms as Bangladesh PM. How would you rate P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh?
They were all nice people. Manmohan Singh was a gentleman… very polite. Vajpayee was a senior person, I had interacted with him. Rao, I met when I visited… I cannot say who is good or bad. All of them, and the new government under Modi, have said all issues [with Bangaldesh] should be resolved.
But they have not been able to resolve these issues?
So far, they have not been able to do that. So, we are hopeful that Modi, with a full majority, will be able to do what previous governments could not.
There is a concern in India about the previous BNP regime when it comes to terrorist activities against India. How do you reassure India?
It is a misplaced concern. This is a motivated propaganda to create a wrong view of the BNP. We are committed to never allowing the territory of Bangladesh to be used against India or any of our neighbours. We have also proven this on the ground.
Another concern is about the rights of minorities in Bangladesh.
I don’t use the word minorities. I say that every person in Bangladesh has equal rights. In fact, they were well-off in the BNP regime. The situation is much worse during Awami League’s tenure, when temples are destroyed and nobody is safe. When the Babri masjid demolition took place, I was PM, and I immediately clamped down on elements trying to incite communal tension in the country. We blocked TV coverage of the demolition. My ministers spent sleepless nights guarding the Hindu community.
Does the Modi government’s stance on illegal immigration cause you concern?
We heard this mentioned many times during the election campaign. We also heard about in the past. Nobody has given any clear proof that there are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in India. Sushma Swaraj did not raise this issue. During elections, people say a lot of things to win — we too say a lot of things — but that does not mean everything will be implemented. And I don’t think many Bangladeshis go to India… they are all doing quite well here.
In Bangladesh, two families have dominated politics. Will that continue in the years to come?
This is not correct. Families are respected because Mujibur Rahman had a contribution, Ziaur Rahman had a contribution. From there, people have faith in them… Look, this is not just about politics — a barrister’s son becomes a barrister, a doctor’s son becomes a doctor, a businessman’s son becomes a businessman. So, politicians generate that interest in their family members. And then, it comes to the people — whom do they accept, that is the key. If they don’t accept, they will be out.
What’s the relationship between BNP and Jamaat?
There is no ideological similarity. We are moderates, neither extreme right nor left. If you go back in history, it was Awami League that was hand-in-hand with Jamaat, when Ershad wanted to conduct elections in 1986… This [BNP and Jamaat] is an arrangement for elections. They contest from some parts, we contest from some others. There is nothing beyond that. They follow their ideology, we follow ours.
What would you have done differently than Hasina in the last six years on relations with India?
Unlike the Awami League government, I would have sought mutuality of gains in our bilateral relations in all areas, along with using provisions under SAARC to foster closer ties. I would have emphasised that it is vital to earn the trust of the people on both sides to give this relationship greater strength… The divide-and-rule policy of colonial masters has created a sense of fear and distrust. There are forces in both of our societies who continue to play on this fear psychosis. It is, therefore, imperative that we work together to lay a new foundation… As a first step we need to sit down and seek mutually acceptable solutions… A future BNP government will encourage greater people-to-people contact and use all bilateral and regional instruments like SAARC to diversify our relations and cooperation in all fields.