The talk of the town in Dhaka is the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 6. The enthusiasm generated by the impending trip is rare and can only be compared with that experienced during the visit of Indira Gandhi in 1972. She was welcomed effusively because of the support she gave Bangladesh in its War of Liberation.
Indeed, this is ironic. Following Gujarat 2002, Modi was looked upon with suspicion. The suspicion led to fear when he became PM. But those fears have been allayed by the role that he has been playing in redefining Delhi’s diplomacy.
While there are worries about the growing personality cult around him, there is satisfaction that he has been influential enough to respond to Bangladesh’s concerns on longstanding bilateral issues. The unanimity with which the Indian Parliament ratified the Land Boundary Agreement was impressive. Even Khaleda Zia’s usually India-baiting Bangladesh Nationalist Party has appreciated the gesture. Modi’s assertive leadership has helped. Bengalis are also impressed by Modi’s political acumen in getting West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on board.
Where Banerjee was rude enough to refuse to be part of the Indian delegation to Dhaka in 2011, she now
Bangladesh’s leaders, for their part, readily acknowledge that a resolution of such bilateral issues as the sharing of Teesta waters depends on the degree to which the West Bengal leadership is willing to go along with Delhi. Clearly, Banerjee’s visit to Bangladesh a few months ago, at the invitation of PM Sheikh Hasina, helped break the ice. Before leaving Dhaka, Banerjee asked Bengalis on this side of the frontier to trust her. Overall, therefore, there is now the feeling that during his visit, Modi will have more good news for Hasina, perhaps through assurances of a quick resolution of the Teesta issue.
The outstanding bilateral issues will likely be delivered on because both Modi and Hasina are providing strong leadership for their nations. Since the general elections of January 2014, Bangladesh’s PM has firmly tackled the violent agitation against her government and spurned calls for a fresh election. The assertiveness appears to have paid off. Earlier, the government was constantly berated by the West over the need for an inclusive election. Of late the criticism has been increasingly muted.
The politically strong position Hasina enjoys today is also reflected in the independent foreign policy her government has pursued over the past few years. Besides strengthening links with India, the Bangladesh leadership has gone for a deepening of ties with China and Russia. This has effectively conveyed the idea that the country, for all the difficulties it may have with the West, is in a position to enter new alignments in its neighbourhood. Added to this is the determination with which the government has gone ahead with the trials of the 1971 war criminals.
But the foreign policy formulations of the government and the trials of war criminals do not obscure the other realities — corruption, police incompetence, the high-handedness of pro-government groups, disappearances of citizens, the systematic murder of liberals and the administration’s inability to track down the killers, sexual assaults on young women in Dhaka — that the government must handle firmly. Politics remains in confrontation mode. Even so, the feeling is that Hasina is in a position to bring about change. The BNP is in a mess, having undermined itself with its months-long agitation.
When he comes calling, Modi will confront these sad realities. But he will also experience the possibility of a brighter, more cooperative diplomatic landscape in Dhaka. As a strong leader, he will be dealing with an equally strong PM in his immediate neighbourhood. Certainly, a point of discussion will be the guaranteeing of regional security. Dhaka has decisively clamped down on elements that, before 2009, freely used Bangladeshi territory to cause trouble in India’s Northeast. Clearly, the gesture has not been lost on India’s leadership.
The writer is associate editor, ‘The Daily Observer’, Dhaka
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