Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Celebration pact and tinkering with the thorniest issues

Photo: Visiting Bangladesh Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina calls upon Indian President Pratibha Patil at Delhi recently
Editorial: The Statesman, Kolkata, India

FOR All the euphoria of the chattering class in the build-up to Sheikh Hasina’s visit, Monday’s agreement reaffirms that Dhaka has more to celebrate than Delhi. Of profound import to Bangladesh is the agreement’s decidedly economic content. In terms of foreign policy, the visit has been significant chiefly because for the first time in 30 years, India played host to a seemingly democratic and relatively secular dispensation from across the border, recalling memories of the concerted struggle for liberation. For all that, the thorniest issues of cross-border militant operations and the illegal influx ~ couched in the diplomatic terminology of international terrorism ~ have merely been tinkered with through a statement of combative intent. The details have been left delightfully vague, arguably because the specifics didn’t figure at the Manmohan Singh-Hasina high table. The latter’s assurance that the Awami League government will not allow Bangladesh to be used for terror against India is merely an iteration of policy, as often as not articulated by the BNP as well. True, there has been some progress in recent weeks, but the matter calls for a more robust enunciation of the agenda. The decision to transfer the sentenced offenders falls short of an extradition treaty which is essential if Bangladesh is to hand over more fugitives. Hopefully, whatever has been achieved ought to lead to the handing over of Anup Chetia, the ULFA leader who was jailed during the Khaleda dispensation.

While the Indian outpouring has been generally emotional, Bangladesh has much to celebrate over the tangible content of the agreement. Pre-eminently the $1 billion credit from India to streamline the railway network, buy rolling stock, rehabilitate the railway workshop in Saidpur, dredge rivers and buy buses. The package is geared to effect a dramatic revamp of the infrastructure, covering the Akhaura-Agartala rail connection and the supply of 250MW of electricity each day, if through a power-starved eastern India. Equally, the terms of engagement are no less critical; unmistakable is the unstated favoured-nation premise. Never has India advanced so huge a one-time assistance to any country; similar aid to Afghanistan was staggered through several phases. And the provision to convert at least 35 per cent of the credit to a grant implies that the amount need not be returned. The bout of bonanza, almost India’s celebration of the Awami League’s return, is unparalleled.

In comparison, the package for India must seem to be small beer, notably the boost to maritime trade through the access that has been granted to the ports in Chittagong, Ashuganj and Mongla. The joint commemoration of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary in 2011 will appeal to the middle class Bengali psyche. At the end of the day, Sonar Bangla must effect a dramatic change in the ground realities along the border, and literally so. #

First published in The Statesman, India, January 12, 2010