Engage With Sincerity

Pragati, India's National Interest Magazine, published an edited version of this essay in their March 2009 issue.

Democracy's Comeback

The overwhelming victory of the coalition led by Awami League and its leader Sheikh Hasina, in the elections in Bangladesh, has been celebrated widely in India. It is indeed good news, and the contrast to the year-end 2007, when Pakistan was tottering on the brink after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, could not be more stark. With Sri Lankan government finally winning the war against Tamil Tigers, Pakistan and Nepal settled with democratic governments, and Maldives and Bhutan successfully implementing democratic transition, it seems that democracy and peace are finally making a comeback in the South Asian region.

This could only be good news for India. Gone are those days of cold war policy making, when we played zero-sum games with our neighbours. The concept of Sphere of Influence lingers on, but appears dated in this age of global communication and terror. Earlier, it was important to see 'favourable' governments in power in the region; now, the security lies in the culture of democracy and shared prosperity.

However, old thinking dies hard and there are far too many people in India who do not like the Nepalese government's closeness to China, or the fact that India has done nothing to protect Tamil Tigers. Awami League's victory in Bangladesh, seen in the prism of this thinking, is a good thing - this is a party supposedly friendly to India.

Forever in Debt

Such assumption of friendliness, of course, originates from history, because India extended its logistical and military support to Awami League led Liberation Fighters and helped them defeat a genocidal Pakistani army. However, the post-liberation generation in Bangladesh, which grew up in the Eighties and the Nineties, have come to regard the Indian intervention in the liberation struggle as a helpful step, but one largely dictated by India's own geo-political interest.

On the question of relationship between the two countries, a prominent Bangladeshi intellectual once told me that Bangladesh was no more indebted to India than the United States was to France, and yet it would have been a travesty to expect George Washington to become a vassal of Louis the XVIth, as India did expect of successive Bangladeshi governments.

Indeed, Indian policy towards Bangladesh over last three decades varied from treating it as a friendly but weak nation to taking it for granted. For example, India built the barrage at Farakka on the Ganges after a long consultation with Pakistani authorities, but started diverting its water soon after Mujib's death without first reaching a water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. This created an outrage, and though an agreement was worked out later, Bangladeshis always perceived it as an unfair one. The Padma, as Ganges is called downstream, today is a much reduced river - something every Bangladeshi squarely blames on Indian unilateralism. Also, in 2003, the Indian government made public its intentions to link its various river basins, without a detailed consultation with the government in Dhaka. Overall, it affirmed the common Bangladeshi perception of India as a Big Brother state.

Bangladeshis today marvel at India's economic achievement and want to imitate its IT industry, though the lack of respect and consideration from India is only too obvious to cancel out any feeling of admiration. Indian government, even in the recent years, has been extraordinarily inconsistent in its trade policies with Bangladesh. The best known example of this is Rahimafrooz, the largest automotive battery manufacturer in Bangladesh, who saw a high tariff being imposed on its batteries after it started making inroads in India, and the Indian manufacturers complained.

Hasina's Mandate

While India has its share of responsibility in squandering the goodwill it earned through its engagement in liberation war, Bangladesh was indeed a difficult nation to do business with. Successive governments since the 1980s plundered the considerable wealth and natural resources of Bangladesh to the extent that by 2001, the country was ranked as the world's most corrupt state, beating Nigeria and a host of African nations in the game.

It is commonly agreed that the result of this election adequately reflects a consensus against corruption and political violence, though Sheikh Hasina is an old hand and presided over a coalition of existing parties. The results appear far more decipherable when the following arguments are considered:

First, Bangladesh has experimented and failed to evolve a third way, an alternative to the two major parties in the fray. Bangladeshis, after the two years of caretaker government, have realized that their democratic options would be limited, for some time now, to the two Begums.

Second, this victory is largely attributable to formation of effective coalition. Awami League has an extremely motivated following of roughly 35 to 40% of Bangladeshi electorate, and with the consolidation of Anti-BNP votes through a broad-based coalition, they became unstoppable. However, it is prudent to note that this is a coalition victory more than it looks on surface [Awami League won a simple majority on its own] and Shiekh Hasina has to work with her partners if she has to create a sustainable government.

Third, an important factor in this year's election were the first time voters, young men and women millennials who care less about liberation struggle and are far more concerned about the road ahead. Bangladesh is a country of young people and this new generation is going to dominate the political agenda from now on.

The All New Opportunity

Therefore, it is reasonable to expect Shiekh Hasina's policies to be dominated by the dynamics of her mandate rather than any feeling of past affiliation. Such forward-looking perspective is going to be hard for even Sheikh Hasina to adopt – already a proactive pursuit of 1971 war criminals is overshadowing the government’s development agenda – but the relationship with India must be seen in the light of this mandate. Indeed, this victory presents India with an opportunity; it is much easier to pursue a common agenda with this administration than it would have been with a coalition involving Jamaat.

Bangladesh, contrary to popular perception, is an extremely important state for India. It is resource rich and strategically located. Access to Bangladeshi natural gas will change the economy of West Bengal, and access to sea port in Chittagong and road transit rights through the country will transform the troubled economies of Indian North-East and integrate them far better to the mainland.

Besides, Bangladesh is militarily important and strategically significant. India would not want a Chinese air base in Jessore, at any cost. Besides, Bangladesh has become the training ground for ISI and its terror brethren. The rural poverty, and disaffected, unemployed urban youth provided the ideal recruitment zone; the corruption and lawlessness allowed covert operations to go on. After much effort, the government of Bangladesh has pushed back some of these groups in recent months, but economic success and political stability will now be required to make those gains permanent.

India needs to engage with Bangladesh with this perspective. Even if it is Shiekh Hasina we will have to deal with, it is time for fresh thinking. We will have to build a relationship based on respect that a sovereign nation rightfully deserves, and treat this country with due consideration befitting an important strategic partner. A good start has been made with Pranab Mukherjee’s recent visit and two bi-lateral trade treaties this month, which covers a number of issues including the transit arrangements. It is reported that there has been a broad agreement on action against terror groups operating out of Bangladesh. However, to make such a treaty successful, India must give as it gets – more must be done to achieve a more balanced trade with Bangladesh [India has a surplus of $3 billion out of a $3.3 billion worth of exports]; to enter into a permanent and equitable water sharing arrangement; sorting out the long-standing issues about land and maritime borders. Steps such as this will allow Sheikh Hasina’s government to make the Bangladeshi public believe that India is serious about the relationship. This will allow her to address other key issues, like Indian companies investing in Bangladesh, and Sale of Gas to India – steps, which will actually help reduce Bangladesh’s trade deficits with India - with greater confidence.

However, all this will demand a change of mindset in India. In the affairs of South Asia, we have thought and acted with fear and insecurity for too long. It is time that we act like a big country, and engage our neighbours with sincerity and fairness.


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