Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A new chapter in ties with Dhaka

Editorial: The Asian Age, India

THE TRUE potential of the relationship between India and Bangladesh has never been realised in spite of this country’s historic role in aiding the process of Bangladesh’s birth, and the existence of a significant section of opinion in that country that embraces the idea of democratic development and a secular polity. Sheikh Hasina Wajed has been in power before at the head of the Awami League but she and her party have always had their hands full battling tendencies that were not well disposed toward cutting the umbilical card with Pakistan dominated by the mullah-military complex. Now on a visit to India, the Bangladesh leader has promised to take her country away from seeds that give rise to extremism and terrorism, and move toward an era of democratic change underpinned by the notions of peace and justice. These were some of the ideas Sheikh Hasina expressed in her acceptance speech on being conferred the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development in New Delhi on Tuesday after she signed a slew of agreements and MOUs with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the previous day.

The Bangladesh leader’s personal commitment to the high ideals she alluded to were never in doubt. But the ground situation in her country did not allow her to attain her goals. The difference now is that Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League-led alliance pulled off a spectacular victory a year back, winning 80 per cent of the seats it contested. The rival BNP-led alliance, which includes the extremist Jamiat-e-Islami, was routed. No less important, the December 2008 election was unprecedented in being completely peaceful, with 85 per cent of the electorate voting. No Bangladesh leader has won an election with such goodwill. Therefore, this time around, Sheikh Hasina has a far freer hand in shaping her country’s domestic and foreign policy. She has promised to take Bangladesh’s relations with India to a new level. Dr Manmohan Singh too has noted that Sheikh Hasina’s visit opened a new chapter in ties that would lead to "complete unity of heart and mind". Such sympathetic articulation on both sides doubtless promises to give a big push to a relationship that had been for the most part unproductive. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. This essentially means that the visiting Prime Minister and her party will have to handle domestic affairs wisely, firmly, and fairly if its foreign policy, particularly concerning India, is to take off in the anticipated direction.

New Delhi has agreed to offer Dhaka a billion-dollar line of credit for infrastructure development, the best it has given any country before. This gives us an idea of the degree of investment India is prepared to make to raise the level of its relationship with its eastern neighbour. Dhaka has also been offered access to Nepal and Bhutan through Indian territory. Mutually beneficial arrangements in the power sector are in the offing. India has cancelled plans to make a dam on its side that Bangladesh was apprehensive about. On its part, Dhaka has offered India complete support in ensuring that terrorism against this country is not mounted from its soil. This means a great deal to us. If the promised agreements can be made to work on the ground, a new era would have arrived in the overall dynamics of South Asia. The Indian and Bangladesh economies have significant complementarities. The two countries can potentially cooperate to establish a firm base in transacting business relations with Southeast Asia and beyond to their mutual benefit. The key is to build a strong domestic constituency that would endorse the spirit of the proposed shift in the bilateral relationship. #

First published in The Asian Age, January 13, 2010