Friday, January 22, 2010

Bangladesh resets equation with India

Image Credit: Dwyn Ronald, Gulf News
As the governments of Bangladesh and India strengthen their relationship with several new agreements, India and Pakistan have drifted further apart

KULDIP NAYAR

IT WAS a welcome coincidence that both Bangladesh and Pakistan figured in the discussions at New Delhi this week as Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina began her first official visit after a landslide victory last year.

The search for peace in the subcontinent is at the root of these discussions. But as the governments of Bangladesh and India strengthen their relationship with several new agreements, India and Pakistan have drifted further apart.

The Manmohan Singh government was at pains to accommodate Sheikh Hasina. On the other hand, it hardly took notice of the three-day Indo-Pakistan meeting right under its nose.

The media, generally influenced by the establishment, was slightly better. That shows the difference between official and non-official initiatives, notwithstanding the fact that both represent the peoples' aspirations. In third world countries, nothing moves without an official nod.

Sheikh Hasina's visit has come at a time when she has assessed her country's needs and India's capacity to meet them. She did not demand anything but it was apparent that if her government could not lift her people economically, she would slide lower on the popularity graph.

Her popularity is already down from 83 per cent to 67 per cent, according to a recent survey by a Bengali daily at Dhaka.

Sheikh Hasina's biggest contribution to Bangladesh is the strength she has given to democratic and secular forces — the plank on which she fought election and won three-fourths of the seats in Jatiya Sangsad (parliament).

India too has, in turn, gained. Lessening of fundamentalism in a neighbouring country helps. India's Prime Minister Singh has in Sheikh Hasina, a prime minister who will not allow its soil to be used by anti-India groups.

When Dhaka handed ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) leaders over to Delhi, it opened a new chapter in bilateral relations. In fact, during the recent discussions, Sheikh Hasina made it clear that no terrorists would be allowed to function from her country.

This changed the equation completely.

Even before Sheikh Hasina could list her demands, Singh reportedly said that she did not have to ask for anything. Whatever Bangladesh needed, India would do its best to provide.

The proposed $600 million (Dh2.20 billion) credit to Dhaka was doubled. India gave an undertaking that it would not take any step on the controversial Tipaimukh Hydro Electric project without Bangladesh‘s consent. Nor did New Delhi ask for any transit facility, a sensitive issue with Dhaka.

Working in tandem
The resolve to eliminate terrorism is what the region wants — from Kabul to Dhaka. Islamabad would like New Delhi to join the anti-Taliban operation, but after the Mumbai carnage, such a move is out of the question.

It will serve everybody's interests if Singh and Sheikh Hasina integrate their efforts with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

During the Indo-Pakistan meeting, the Pakistani speakers were frank enough to admit the havoc the terrorists were creating in their country.

Islamabad needs to be retrieved. It does not mean that India will be less anxious in having Pakistan pursue its effort to book the perpetrators of 26/11. But it does mean that New Delhi's frozen attitude should melt so that the two countries can meet across the table once again.

Disappointment in Pakistan over the ‘no' to talks should not make President Asif Ali Zardari indulge in jingoism and say that they would wage a thousand-year war against India. He may want to bolster himself politically. But his rhetoric may make him more dependable on the army which has been the biggest factor in Pakistan.

It is strange that Islamabad has not yet understood how the system works in New Delhi. Otherwise, Pakistan would not have overreacted to the statement by Chief of the Army Staff General Deepak Kapoor that India may have to prepare for war against China and Pakistan. However irresponsible the statement, it does not pose any threat to Pakistan. Defence Minister A.K. Anthony scoffed at Islamabad's reaction.

General Kapoor is not General Pervez Kiyani. The systems in the two countries are different. General Kapoor or the army has no say in India's political affairs. He is due to retire. The Indian government will soon name his successor.

Making a mountain out of a molehill gives the impression as if Pakistan is trying to score a point, however weak. What all this boils down to is the unending mistrust. Until it is replaced by confidence, the two sides have to see that they do not present an exaggerated picture, indulge in accusations or imagine something which has no basis.

If all these countries were to pool their resources, peace is assured in south Asia. They do not have to give up their identity or sovereignty. They have to only shed distrust in the interest of common good. #

First published in The Gulf News, Dubai, UAE, January 16, 2010

Kuldip Nayar is a journalist, columnist, former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member