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Thursday, May 08, 2014

New government at the Centre disturbing improved relations with Bangladesh would lose credibility internationally


Whoever forms the next government in Delhi will have to face a host of serious foreign policy issues. Repairing frosty relations with the US without surrendering to Washington and carrying forward improving relations with China, simultaneously, would be the biggest foreign policy challenge for the new government. But the immediacy of settling the line on Bangladesh cannot be underestimated. 

Former MEA secretary (east) Rajiv Sikri has observed that Bangladesh is India's most important neighbour — more important than Pakistan in many ways. India's military intervention in 1971 to create this new nation was motivated by her concern for its own insurgency-ravaged northeast. 

A friendly Bangladesh was seen as the best guarantee for the security of India's east and northeast — a region afflicted by underdevelopment and prone to ethnic separatism, which was fuelled by strong support from both Pakistan and China. 

Indira, Mujib's Legacy 
Indira Gandhi's wisdom was carried forward by Manmohan Singh when he sought to carry bilateral relations with Dhaka to a new high. With Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's daughter Sheikh Hasina in power and willing to deliver on India's security and connectivity concerns, Manmohan's 2010 Dhaka visit set the stage for a huge breakthrough. 

But Mamata Banerjee's fierce opposition scuttled the Teesta water-sharing treaty and made it difficult, if not impossible, to implement the land boundary agreement signed during Singh's visit. The security situation in India's troubled northeast is better than ever before after Bangladesh's crackdown on northeast Indian rebel groups based there. 

A Chittagong court has awarded death sentences against two former ministers, two former intelligence chiefs and Ulfa military wing supremo Paresh Barua in a 2004 arms smuggling case, underscoring the importance of a friendly regime in Dhaka for India's security. 

Delhi-Friendly Dhaka 
That the two ministers belonged to the BNP-Jamaat alliance and the arms were being smuggled with the connivance of senior functionaries of Khaleda Zia's government stands in stark contrast to the crackdown on the rebel groups after Hasina took charge. But a change of regime in Dhaka could make a lot of difference. 

It is payback time for Delhi and the next government would have to find ways to carry forward the Teesta water-sharing deal and implement the land boundary agreement. BJP hardliners like Subramaniam Swamy have gone to the absurd extent of demanding Bangladesh land for settling illegal migrants from there. 

The party will have to distance itself from such positions. Narendra Modi will have to refrain from talking about sending all Muslims in Bengal back to Bangladesh. If he takes his Rajdharma seriously, there is no way Modi can reverse Manmohan's Bangladesh policy. 

If India fails to push the Teesta and land boundary agreements, no other country would take India seriously or come forward to resolve contentious issues. The BNP is already stepping up the heat on the Teesta issue. 

On April 22-23, it organised a Long March to the Teesta barrage at Nilphamari in northern Bangladesh, blaming the Awami government for failing to clinch a deal with India. A low waterline in the Teesta is an emotive issue with farmers in northern Bangladesh. The BNP wants to corner the Awami League on this, after failing to dislodge it through an agitation leading to a poll boycott. 

Tripping Over Hard Line 
Hasina is understandably worried. A coalition of regional parties with Mamata Banerjee as an important player is her worst-case scenario because the Bengal chief minister would do all to block the Teesta and land boundary agreement. 

With Congress looking on its way out and the Left not as influential as before, her only hope is a BJP government that does not pander to its hardliners like Swamy or Assam unit chief Sarbananda Sonowal, and implements India's sovereign commitments. Failure to do that would not only undermine India's credibility but also adversely affect its most trusted ally in the region. 

In 2001, the BJP decided not to put its eggs in one basket and A B Vajpayee's national security adviser Brajesh Mishra rushed to congratulate Khaleda Zia on taking over as Prime Minister, even as Hindus were suffering one of the worst recent pogroms inflicted by BNP-Jamaat hardliners. 

If Vajpayee got Kargil for Lahore, he was rewarded by heightened Bangladesh support for northeastern insurgents, a point the 2004 Chittagong arms case drives home. 

Modi or any other BJP prime minister should not repeat that mistake because there is nothing to suggest the BNP-Jamaat combine would address India's security and connectivity concerns like Hasina has. 

It is easy to argue Indian policy should not be regime-specific but what can Delhi do if some regimes warm up to it while others remain perpetually hostile. Bangladesh should be the first priority for the next government in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Economic Times, 8 May 2014

Subir Baumik is a writer, a veteran journalist, is now senior editor with Dhaka-based

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