INDIA HAS, in recent weeks, formally hosted two senior leaders from Bangladesh - both from the opposition parties. First it was the country's former ruler HM Ershad and then the former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, who was hosted for a whole week. Both met top Indian leaders and expressed satisfaction after the discussions. These discussions may not solve any of the bilateral issues that were discussed - but India's hosting of two opposition figures from Bangladesh at this juncture seems to be significant.
In Dhaka, the political class puts this down to "serious doubts" in the Indian establishment about the ruling Awami League's chances of coming back to power. Since democracy returned to Bangladesh after the ouster of Ershad's military regime, the Awami League and the BNP has turns, winning elections every five years. So a change of guard next year may not surprise anyone, except those who feel the Awami League's massive mandate in December 2008 may have helped it consolidate its position in a nation that was largely frustrated with Islamist excesses, murderous vindictive politics and rotten governance. That has not happened - and for various reasons. Poor leadership, corruptions scams, the needless spat with micro-credit guru Mohammed Yunus - and much more.
But some say the Awami League has been badly let down by India, after all it has done for its large neighbour. In a country where agriculture is still the occupation of most, water is an emotive issue. India's failure to deliver on the Teesta Water Sharing Treaty has hit Hasina's government below the belt. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to back off on the issue due to the sudden opposition of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. This has become a national embarrassment for Singh and India - but it has become favourite ammunition for attacking Hasina back home.
The same is true about the much-awaited, but the much-delayed, Land Boundary Agreement involving the exchange of enclaves. Those who follow India's murky coalition politics may appreciate why Singh's hands are somewhat tied, but most in Bangladesh, specially those who gun for the Awami League, have a huge issue to run down the party as an "Indian stooge" that has got nothing for all it has done for India.
The present Awami League government has gone after Islamic radicals and separatist rebels from northeast India with a vengeance after it came to power. Most of the top guns of the northeastern insurgency, except the ULFA's elusive military wing chief Paresh Barua who perhaps fled Bangladesh at the right time, have been nabbed and handed over to the Indian authorities. Some of these leaders have been forced to start dialogues with Delhi after announcing ceasefires.
Bangladesh's security services have started massive operations against Pakistan-engineered operations to use Bangladesh for pushing in huge quantities of Indian counterfeit currency. Hasina's government is also ready to concede to most Indian demands from transit to use of Chittagong port - all that augurs well for India's northeast. But in diplomacy, one has to get something to be able to give something. This is where Hasina has been left high and dry and that, in no small measure, is contributing to the possible erosion of the Awami League's popularity.
As a major regional power, it is natural for India to anticipate a change of guard in a neighbouring country and prepare for it. But why not do it discreetly? The way Begum Zia and Ershad were hosted in Delhi has only convinced Bangladeshis that India has written off the Awami League's chances in the next parliament polls and so is preparing for the inevitable. It was natural for a trusted ally like Hasina to expect a payback from India, Teesta et al, in the run-up to her poll campaign. The last thing she could have bargained for are the current signals from Delhi that India is preparing to change sides if she does not win.
First published in The Hindustan Times, November 18, 2012
Subir Bhaumik, a veteran journalist, is a Senior Fellow with the Kolkata-based Centre for Study in International Relations and Development