Monday, November 19, 2012

What lies beyond this U-turn?

Photo: REACHING ACROSS: President Pranab Mukherjee (right) with BNP leader Khaleda Zia at Rashtrapati Bhavan


There is every possibility that Khaleda Zia’s recanting of her long-held anti-India views is mere pre-election posturing

KHALEDA ZIA, Bangladesh’s leader of the opposition in Parliament, made some significant statements during her October 28-November 3 visit to India that deserve scrutiny.

As far as her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is concerned, the visit had a dual purpose: one, to establish a stronger relationship between the two countries, and two, to remove the mistrust that India perceivably has towards the BNP.

One of Ms Khaleda Zia’s close aides who accompanied her to New Delhi, said the high-profile visit, roughly a year ahead of the next general election, dispelled the perception that “India favours one political party” in Bangladesh.

During the visit, which was closely watched in both the countries, Ms. Khaleda Zia met key Indian leaders including President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, senior BJP leader L.K. Advani, BJP president Nitin Gadkari, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai.

In her meetings, Ms Khaleda Zia, for the first time, appreciated India’s security concerns and gave an assurance that terrorists and anti-India insurgents would not be allowed on Bangladeshi soil if she comes to power again.

The former Prime Minister, who was a staunch critic of the present Sheikh Hasina government’s improved relations with India, also reportedly supported India’s transit and transshipment through Bangladesh, and also India’s participation in a consortium with China to build a deep-sea port at Bangladesh’s Sonadia.

Like Ms Khaleda Zia, Jatiya Party chairman General H.M. Ershad and Awami League’s general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam had also visited India in recent times on New Delhi’s invitations. Reportedly, the main thrust of Indian interactions with Ms Khaleda Zia was sustaining the relations the two countries had built in the last four years.

This visit was certainly more important than her tour of India in 2006 as the Prime Minister; and is reminiscent of a similar high-profile visit to New Delhi by the then opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina, in 2006.

Happy host
The Indian External Affairs Ministry was also happy with the outcome as its spokesman quoted Ms Khaleda Zia as saying that the visit marked a “new beginning” and “let’s look forward and not look in the rear view mirror”.

There are varying interpretations of the visit. Some say it is in the interest of both India and BNP to build ties ahead of the next general elections in which the ruling Awami League may face a debacle due to anti-incumbency factors. According to pro-Khaleda analysts, the “positive changes” in the BNP were being closely watched by India, and these were first underlined when the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka in May this year. After a meeting with Ms Khaleda Zia, he said India was interested in building relations with Bangladesh and not just with one party.

Also, the visit took place at a time when international politics has changed. Myanmar’s willingness to come out of the cold and the United States’ overtures towards it have made Bangladesh’s geopolitical location of immense importance.

Watch the curve
A secular-democratic Bangladesh has no reason to be perturbed with Ms Khaleda Zia’s radical postures towards India. But it must keep a watch on the U-turn that she is making on her long-held policies.

It is possible that, as in the run-up to the 2001 election, Ms Khaleda Zia is trying to sell the line that a government led by her, despite its Islamist orientation and pronounced anti-India bias, is better suited to deliver on promises made to India than Sheikh Hasina’s secular Awami League. Arch rivals can turn friends, and true changes of heart are welcome. However, those on the vanguard of a secular-democratic Bangladesh doubt Ms. Khaleda Zia can follow through on her assurances while keeping parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamists in the fold. Therefore, the question remains: Is this a genuine change of heart or posturing ahead of the next general election?

Bangladeshis would recall her repeated statements when she was Prime Minister, calling India’s north-east insurgents “freedom fighters”. It was during the BNP-Jamaat alliance’s rule that a massive arms haul was made in Chittagong in April, 2004. The then Prime Minister reportedly had full knowledge of these arms, which were unmistakably meant for insurgent outfits like ULFA.

Bangladesh, which had enjoyed a liberal polity, also turned a happy hunting ground for religious extremists during her regime. Therefore, secular democrats would like to see verification of such pronouncements in action.

One would remember that on return to power in 2001, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami went about implementing with full vigour their communal agenda, resorting to ‘minority cleansing’ on a scale that Bangladesh had never witnessed except for 1971 and turned the country into a sanctuary for international Islamist terrorist groups.

The present dispensation
When Awami League swept into power in the 2008 general elections, one of the priorities of Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina was to visit New Delhi to extend a warm hand of friendship. Despite stumbling blocks, it was Ms Hasina who boldly initiated a new beginning in India-Bangladesh ties — a first since the two joined hands in the 1971 war for independence of East Pakistan.

Indeed, the Hasina government has initiated a new era of regional connectivity and has also removed a vital security concern of India by bringing north-east insurgents to task.
All these actions, until her recent visit to New Delhi, were persistently challenged by Ms. Khaleda Zia and her Islamist allies, who termed the Hasina government, as usual, “an Indian stooge”.

Given the anti-incumbency factor, the government led by Sheikh Hasina may not be in a commanding position in the coming general election, especially in urban areas. But there is no credible sign that the ratings of the BNP and its Islamist allies have had a substantive rise. Therefore, the perceived defeat of the Awami League may be too hasty a conclusion.

Bangladesh’s politics is fundamentally linked to its Liberation War, and the ongoing trial of “war criminals” initiated by the Hasina government represents an effort to come to terms with the past. It is in the interest of a strong, secular Bangladesh that justice be done. But the BNP, a staunch ally of the Jamaat-e-Islami which has many of its leaders among the top accused, has demanded the trial be suspended and the accused freed.

Ms. Khaleda Zia’s high-profile visit to India has also sent confusing signals to the secular parties and grouping. Rhetoric apart, the confusion can be judged from a recent remark by Awami League’s spokesman Mahbub-ul Alam Hanif, who said that having failed to get support at home, the BNP was trying to get back to power with Indian support.

Despite all the debates, the fact is that Ms. Khaleda Zia has announced a considerable shift from what she and her party have stood for ever since she took over the reins of BNP in the early 1980s. If this change of heart is real and durable, it is welcome in the interest of restoring a healthy regional environment based on understanding and cooperation.

Haroon Habib is a journalist, writer and liberation war veteran. He is Bangladesh correspondent for The Hindu for 3 decades.