Saturday, February 18, 2012

Time to think different

Lots of expectation: Sheikh Hasina & Manhoman Singh 
Ties with Pakistan is bedeviled, while relations with Nepal, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka impaired by minor irritants


Indias size and strength both have been a source of insecurity for the smaller nations that ring the subcontinental giant. Thats made the strategic dimension of bilateral relations with neighbouring countries critical. While ties withPakistan have been bedeviled by terror attacks and territorial claims, better relations with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been impaired by minor irritants.

Thankfully, Indian mandarins have woken up to the country's intimidating size and capacity and how that can overwhelm smaller neighbours. As the new conversations with Bangladesh and Nepal demonstrate, New Delhi appears to be moving towards the strategic view that the larger "give" will have to come from India.

But there are new elements that have to be infused to Indian strategic thinking -- first, that implementation is even more important than the declaratory diplomacy India is fond of. Second, the central government has to partner seriously with state governments where foreign policy intersects with domestic issues. Certainly, in the case of Bangladesh, West Bengal should be a key interlocutor for the Bangladeshis as well as for the MEA.

In return, Indias smaller neighbours will have to be mindful of Indias huge security concerns and how leaving these unaddressed can impact other key areas of the relationship.

Bangladesh has transformed into a good news story for Indian foreign policy. After decades of a blow hot-blow cold relationship, both India and Bangladesh can say with a great deal of certainty that sharing prosperity is a strategic imperative for both.

This week, India decided to start work on a $51-million railway line between Agartala and the Bangladesh border town of Akhaura that will enable Tripura to get grain and food supplies through Bangladesh. For India, Bangladesh is the gateway to southeast Asia. For Dhaka, India is the safest partner for its growth and development. For the ordinary Indian and the ordinary Bangladeshi, this is not hard to understand. Yet, establishments on either side of the border are still lumbering and the atmosphere remains still peppered with mistrust. In New Delhi, strategic experts fear that India may be falling short in taking this relationship forward, a fact that is worrying the top foreign policy leadership here.

Manmohan Singhs Bangladesh initiative had been the most important piece of neighbourhood diplomacy undertaken by the UPA government, but it seems to be slowing down. The exercise was started during the caretaker government before the last elections, and taken forward afterSheikh Hasina took over in Dhaka.

Sheikh Hasinas initial steps to address Indias security concerns went a long way in setting the ground for intensified engagement. In response, Sheikh Hasina was Indias Republic Day chief guest in 2010, an event that kicked off a massive Indian outreach programme with Bangladesh. A second marker of improved ties came with the reciprocal visit by Manmohan Singh to Dhaka in September, 2011. As we go into 2012, its important to realize that in fact, India and Bangladesh have actually had a very productive year. A land boundary has been demarcated, the vexed issue of enclaves and adverse possessions resolved. The land boundary agreement will not only change the map of India, it will be the first resolved boundary that India has with any of its neighbors. The agreement will essentially formalize the status quo on enclaves and areas under adverse possession -- that is, there will be no transfer of territory or people. The 53,000 people in the enclaves, who have just been counted in the first ever census there, will get the citizenship of the country they reside in.

India has been generous with tariffs leading to greater trade and investments, especially in the garments sector. Recognizing the growth potential for Indian investments in Bangladesh, AMA Muhith, the Bangladesh finance minister recently announced the establishment of new special economic zones that would simultaneously spur Bangladeshi industry, not just in the garment and textiles sector where Bangladesh enjoys enormous advantages, but also foreign investment.

The residual unhappiness in the relationship stems from the fact that India failed at the last minute to stitch together the Teesta River agreement with Bangladesh after promising to do so, because the UPA government botched up in getting West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to agree to the deal. Banerjee, famously capricious, dumped Manmohan Singh at the eleventh hour, diminishing the PMs transformative visit to Dhaka in September.

"Our inability to settle the Teesta issue is making small incidents flare up," a source said. The Sheikh Hasina government had gambled big on the India relationship, but with India failing to come up to scratch, there is the inevitable bad blood that affects the relationship. The lack of an agreement on Teesta has overshadowed progress on many other fronts. Miffed, Bangladesh now wants to hold cooperation on transit, an issue considered important by India, until the Teesta issue is settled.

India has just appointed a new envoy to Dhaka, whose brief it will be to put the bilateral relationship on a more sure footing. Because ultimately, the strength of the relationship will be its survivability -- that it should be the same no matter who is in power in Dhaka. Pankaj Saran, currently a key official in the Prime Ministers Office, has just been named the new high commissioner to Bangladesh, a sure sign that India continues to place a high value on getting the Bangladesh relationship right.

The good thing is that India acknowledges the importance of Bangladesh and is willing to take small steps to keep the ties afloat, even as domestic politics has grounded substantive movement on issues that matter to Dhaka.

Sheikh Hasina was in Agartala on January 11 to receive a doctorate from Tripura University. But more important, she went down memory lane, because Agartala holds memories for their independence struggle, as well as some personal memories of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These are important gestures -- because the bilateral relationship should not be confined to governments, but people. For instance, Bangladesh politics continues to pressure the Hasina government on the Tipaimukh dam prompting a recent urgent visit by Hasinas foreign policy advisers, Gowher Rizvi and Matiur Rehman, who met the PM to apprise him of the brewing crisis. There are any number of creative solutions to the Tipaimukh Dam issue, including making Bangladesh a beneficiary of it. These should be collaborative efforts on finding solutions to common problems or certainly, problems that have the potential to derail a good news story.

First published in The Times of India, February 17, 2012