Thursday, January 21, 2010

A new start for India and Bangladesh?

Strengthening ties: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed being received by UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi
The Bangladeshi prime minister's visit to India won only vague promises. It is time to demand a more equal relationship

ASIF SALEH

THERE WAS a sense of history at the Bangladeshi prime minister's office on Saturday. Sheikh Hasina, in a show of strength, flanked by the top members of her government, was addressing the country's editors and reporters. In an unprecedented White House-style press conference broadcast live on all the TV channels and radio stations, her mood was combative. She was defending the agreements she had signed in India the previous week. "Are we to let our resources remain unused forever?... The deals will fight South Asia's common enemy – poverty," she said, trying to defuse opposition to the deals.

Suddenly India is all over the airwaves in Bangladesh. (The visiting Indian cricket captain has created his own controversy by calling the Bangladesh cricket team "ordinary".) Civil society, too, has rounded up experts for discussions on the prime minister's visit to India. Talkshows and blogs are deluged with comments, with listeners calling in. But if you switch to the Indian media, the trip gets very limited airtime and print space. Even during the visit, the news hardly made the front pages. This difference in media treatment underlines the relationship between India and Bangladesh. And this is reflected on the policy level – India reacts with indifference and apathy when Bangladesh reaches out, and concerns and accusations when Bangladesh plays tough.

In spite of this lack of attention in India, how will the people of Bangladesh view this trip and the ensuing relationship? If it translates into more investment and economic activity, and ultimately jobs and income, that will surely be welcomed. But if it does nothing to remove the threats of upstream dam projects to local rivers and ecosystems or to stop the killing of civilians by Indian paramilitary forces at the border, while the trade imbalance between the country continues in India's favour and the security rhetoric continues to reflect Indian perceptions and prejudices and not Bangladeshi reality, there will be a heavy political price to pay.

Can India afford to take that chance? Hardly. Over her first year in power, Hasina has gone out of her way, taking enormous political risks, to address India's concern on security matters. Her party won three-quarters of the parliamentary seats, but she has already spent some of this political capital on India. And yet, if this visit was any indication, India has not reciprocated. There are genuine concerns in Bangladesh about the impact of India's proposed Tipaimukh Dam, due to be built within 100km of Bangladesh's north-eastern border, and the sharing of water from the Teesta river. Indian positions on either issue have hardly changed. The developments in the coming months will be crucial to assess if this is indeed a new start to Indo-Bangla relationship, as some analysts have argued.

What are the chances that India will move from its entrenched position on these issues? More importantly, is there any basis for Bangladesh expecting the relationship's dynamics to change dramatically? Is it enough to trust the Indian government when it says no harm will come to Bangladesh? Has this worked in any unequal relationships between states?

Of course it hasn't. And it won't either in Bangladesh's case unless it applies more leverage at the negotiation table. For that to happen, Bangladesh's policymakers need to start thinking of the "China card". Bangladesh has recently attracted investment attention from China's private sector. It wouldn't hurt to extend the relationship on the state level to advance some key strategic objectives. Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka have recently built sea ports using China's assistance. Bangladesh too can explore options on building deep sea ports using China's assistance.

As a friend of mine, a professor of international political economy, put it: "If India wants to treat Bangladeshis as equals I am all for integration. If we are going to be fenced in like rats (or Palestinians) in a context where India will clearly still use our territory as its market and for access routes (exactly like Israel), as a sovereign country we should explore how to change the balance of power in the region."

It may be time for us to achieve far more concrete promises addressing our concerns from future India visits by our PMs. As I write this, India, the top cricketing nation, is playing Bangladesh, the bottom-ranked but lately resurgent test-playing country. Against the backdrop of the comment by the Indian captain that Bangladesh is an ordinary side, the dismal performance of their overconfident side on the first day will seem particularly sweet to Bangladeshis. We can only hope the regional importance of Bangladesh is not similarly underestimated. #

First published in The Guardian, January 19, 2010

Asif Saleh is a writer, technologist and a social entrepreneur. After spending 12 years at Goldman, Sachs, he left the corporate life and now manages Drishtipat, a social development organization, focused on Bangladesh. He also blogs Unheard Voice