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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 6, January 30, 2010

India-Bangladesh: Balance-sheet of the Hasina Visit

Monday 8 February 2010, by Mahendra Ved

India and Bangladesh will hark back to the past when they jointly celebrate next year the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. The Nobel Laureate’s poems are national anthems of both. This decision beautifully underscored the recent New Delhi visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

President Pratibha Patil hugged Hasina and the spontaneousness of their smiles came out in the pictures published the next day. There was holding of hands with Sonia Gandhi, who met the entire Sheikh clan, including son Sanjib Joy and daughter Putul, who spent their schooling years in India.

Hasina broke protocol to visit Subhra, the ailing wife of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, whom she had befriended during her exile days (1975-81) in New Delhi, after her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the rest of the family were butchered.

The Begal bonhomie was complete with Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee gifting Nalli sarees (from South India, not Bengal) and sweets to the Sheikh sisters, Hasina and the younger Rehana.

If India called her visit “a landmark”, Hasina on return home called it “a hundred per cent success”, since that heralded peace and development in the South Asian region.

She was right in talking of the whole region. Going beyond symbolisms the visit does mark the beginning of the integration of South Asia—something that has been delayed for six decades as India’s partition in 1947 was not just physical. It also generated mutual mistrust.

In months to come, India will provide Bangladesh rail access to Nepal and roadway to Bhutan. The two landlocked Himalayan nations will have the choice of sea outlets beyond Kolkata, at Chittagong and Mangla. They will also get the Bangladeshi market.

India is at last behaving like a big neighbour, not a big brother, as it has been accused for reasons both valid and otherwise. This again was long overdue, but comes now with its growing economic confidence, a willingness to accommodate and a realisation that to be seen as a major power, it must carry the smaller neighbours along.

Beyond the diplomatic give-and-take, the captains of trade and industry whom Hasina met, also warmed up to her. The talks coincided with Indian telecom major Bharti Airtel not only buying a stake of Bangladesh operations of the Abu Dhabi-based Warid, but also committing $ 300 million to help Bangladesh acquire a submarine cable link from South-East Asia.

It remains to be seen if Dhaka will receive the $ 3 billion investment offer Tata Group had made, which was turned down earlier as being “politically sensitive”.

‘Sensitivity’, actually, is at the core of Delhi-Dhaka relations and the rivalry between Hasina and her arch political rival, two-term Premier Khaleda Zia.

Not surprising, even before Hasina returned home, her Delhi talks and the agreements signed were pilloried by Zia, who ended Parliament boycott to take on her rival in the House and a mass agitation outside.

So stark is the political divide in Bangladesh, where India inevitably becomes a factor, that Delhi cannot be faulted for viewing things through a black-and-white prism.

If protests delay plans and projects that were finalised during the Hasina visit, the loss would not just be bilateral.

Zia opposes Bangaldesh joining the Asian Superhighway and the rail link that envisages linking Bulgaria in Europe with Bangkok in South-East Asia. This is only for the reason that it allows India access to the isolated North-Eastern region.

Reversing past policy, Hasina is readying to join both, something that will make the South Asian connectivity fuller in the near future.

Hasina signed a pact that will refurbish Bangladesh’s rail network which never grew since the British era, to ready it for the superhighway. The money for it, and a myriad other development and infrastructure projects in Bangladesh will come from a $ 1 billion line-of-credit, the highest India has given to any country.

India has long hankered for transit through Bangladesh to reach its isolated and neglected North-Eastern region. Although this is Zia’s bugbear, Hasina has gone half-way in promoting rail link with the North-East. This has the potential of a future freight corridor that would serve mutual interests as it also opens up the Indian market for Bangladesh.

All this has been made possible by the presence of a Congress-led government in India that views Hasina and her Awami League as friendly, given the Indian help in Bangladesh’s emergence in 1971. Hasina came to India with the strongest electoral mandate that any India-friendly government has had in Dhaka in three decades. Both democracies have less than four years to consolidate their ties.

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Time has arrived for Bangladesh’s political parties to acknowledge that there is a dynamics associated with globalisation—a stable, working relationship with India. They have to realise that Bangladesh is part of the subcontinent and an important stakeholder in the future success of South Asia as a region.

In the current, more complex times, the two have signed to be allies in the fight against militancy, both Islamist and ethnic, afflicting the region and of which both are victims.

Making its friendly intent clear, Bangladesh has facilitated the arrest by Indian authorities of ULFA militants, carrying multiple passports and roaming across South and South-East Asia, and staging violent operations using Bangladeshi soil.

Bangladesh, for once, put the ball in India’s court with its stand on trade and connectivity, cross-border power trading and cracking down on militants. India could not but take the cue and deleted 47 key items that Bangladesh imports from the tariff list. Still, more needs done by the bigger economy.

India imports duty-free eight million pieces of readymade garments annually. Although they are competitors in the international market, India needs to absorb more to help Bangladesh’s biggest foreign exchange earner.

The two can forge ahead further towards integrating the two economies for economic integration would automatically change the matrix to address security concerns.

This is just the beginning and much needs done. The 1947 division left many enclaves along the border where people for the past six decades live or traverse through territories in ‘adverse’ possession. An exchange of these enclaves to streamline the border and remove hardship to the locals is now possible.

Bangladesh is sandwiched between India and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal that has high potential for hydrocarbons whose explorations have been stunted by the absence of maritime boundaries.

In less than a week, Hasina got both neighbours to agree to settle the disputres amicably. This is no mean achievement and has wider and deeper economic implications.

The crux of economic well-being for Bangladesh and the Indian North-East, besides end of militancy, is mangagement of rivers that either dry up or are flooded. The neighbours share over 50 of them.

Hasina had signed a pact over the Ganga waters during her earlier tenure (1996-2001). She now wants a similar water-sharing on Teesta and other rivers. Given the current understanding, this should be possible.

A key part of the water management is silted rivers that have not been dredged since World War II. A part of the billion-dollar credit would be utilised here.

This visit has assumed special significance because it has opened the doors and windows that were required to improve the mineset and also bridge differences in respective perceptions. This has been a good first step towards the right direction.

Both governments, however, need now to expeditiously move forward with transparency. This will require sustained political will and an interactive engagement.

The two neighbours, till date, have failed to secure the potential benefits of their ties that would be mutually beneficial since cooperation has been directly proportional to politics.

Could this be the beginning of India’s “next-door diplomacy”? Difficult to say. But a sincere effort is needed. India must do what other great powers have done in the past, which is to make short-term economic concessions in return for long-term security gains.

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