Friends,pointing east

A window of opportunity to permanently fix Bangladesh relations....

Written by Sandeep Bhardwaj | Published: February 11, 2009 12:27:33 am

The arrival of a new government in Bangladesh and the flurry of diplomatic activities that has ensued between New Delhi and Dhaka is,no doubt,a good sign for the region. India’s Minister for External Affairs,Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Bangladesh on February 9 emphasised this. However,it also highlights the immaturity that India’s foreign relations still suffer,despite our positioning of ourselves as an emerging power.

For an outside observer it may seem strange that India has such a sinusoidal relation with Dhaka. Within a month of the Awami League’s assumption of power,New Delhi arranged a joint military exercise,signed a bilateral trade agreement and set up two ministerial visits; while over five years of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government,India had nothing to show except for failed deals and wild accusations.

Considering that Bangladesh is a politically bipolar country with an electorate sharply divided between the two major groupings (even in the 2008 elections the BNP-led coalition won 37 per cent of the votes),shouldn’t India be able to do business with both of them?

Yes,Bangladesh’s domestic politics is as turbulent as can be,and the task of Indian diplomats dealing with right-wing political factions nursing anti-India sentiments cannot be easy. But should India just throw up its hands every time the BNP comes to power?

With the Awami League government,India has been presented with a golden opportunity. Surely,barring some unexpected turn of events,India and Bangladesh are likely to have a very successful partnership. But what about the next elections? If the BNP comes to power in the next elections it will — unless India takes steps now — dismantle everything that the League will have done in the interim.

Keeping an eye on the long term,India must employ this five-year golden opportunity aggressively and assertively. If it is apparent that right-wing politics in Bangladesh is not going to be friendly towards India,India must start accumulating leverage now. What New Delhi must understand is that while Bangladesh may not figure on India’s domestic politics,in Dhaka India is a significant political issue. Thus, instead of India seeking an immediate quid pro quo every time,it should first try to resolve Bangladesh’s grievances.

Mukherjee will have brought several Indian issues to the table — terrorism,trade,transit and illegal immigration. Bangladesh will have replied by bringing up border disputes,water issues and trade imbalance. In addition,Dhaka will probably have been sounded out for reviving failed deals like the Tata project and the trilateral pipeline.

Ironically,most of these issues are not only solvable,the solutions are already available. Only lack of political will and bureaucratic inertia has held us back.

Maritime and land boundary disputes between the two nations are surprisingly minor,and involve very small areas. For example,the disputed part of the India-Bangladesh land border involves only 297 km out of 4,095 km. Given the lucrative possibilities of gas reserves in the disputed maritime territory,resolving the sea border might be a little more difficult,but not impossible.

The issue of water sharing is a little more complex,but also one with a possible solution. It has already been established that the Indian River Linking Project is unlikely to take off because of the fear that Bangladesh could become a desert. Their ministry for water resources has already begun to lobby for reactivating the Joint River Commission. Hopefully,the revived commission will set a quicker pace than its predecessor.

The trade imbalance — possibly the biggest political issue regarding India in Bangladesh — has to be handled more carefully. Since

India has competing domestic producers for almost all the sectors of Bangladesh’s economy,it becomes difficult for India to increase its imports without raising a political storm among local producers. However,with the new energy policy of the government,Bangladesh will be exploring its huge reserves of natural gas; since India is the most logical buyer for this excess gas,it will probably help offset the trade imbalance.

In addition,India can provide several gestures of goodwill like granting Bangladesh transit rights to Bhutan and Nepal,or the sale of excess electricity from the upcoming Tripura power project to energy-starved Bangladesh. From a cynical point of view,these gestures will not only build trust but also give us leverage for future use. It is often argued that India,being larger,should be magnanimous towards Bangladesh. However,this magnanimity should not be driven by our generosity but by pure self-interest.

There are several issues that have plagued bilateral relations for decades. With a friendly government in Dhaka,this is the time for India to resolve these issues once and for all. If that means losing a little in the short term to gain in the long term,so be it.


The writer researches Bangladesh’s politics at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies,New Delhi 

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