Millennium Post

Eyeing Bangla for good

With general elections approaching in Bangladesh, both the ruling Awami League (AL) and the major opposition party the BNP, need to redefine their perceptions about India, their biggest regional neighbour.

As of now, India has reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Its relations with Bangladesh have been broadly harmonious, barring occasional glitches and irritants. The fact that the AL has been ruling Bangladesh at present has also helped to ensure this.

However, the situation has been markedly less satisfactory whenever the BNP, an alliance partner with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, has assumed power. Not only the level of mutual distrust increased, there could be no apparent agreement even on routine bilateral or regional issues.

For example, the Bangladeshi refusal during the BNP rule to close down camps run by Indian insurgents belonging to the ULFA, NLFT and other armed groups on their soil, or Dhaka’s refusal to conclude a trilateral agreement involving the supply of gas from the Bay of Bengal offshore areas, through a Myanmar-Bangladesh-India pipeline.

During the tenure of the BNP again, it was not possible to conclude any trade and trades it treaty between the two countries. Pro-Pakistani fundamentalists in Bangladesh argued that such stems would lead to a virtual Indian economic takeover and a territorial domination.

Under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the present AL prime minister, it has been possible for India to send some 10,000 tonnes of rice from Haldia Port to Tripura, using the river route through Bangladesh. More supplies would be allowed and Bangladesh would let India the use of its ports as well.

Both countries now cooperate in combating cross border International terrorism, with a mutual extradition system about to be introduced soon.

Bangladesh would receive a loan of $1 billion from India, of which $200 million would form an outright grant. India is helping the modernisation and expansion of Bangladesh’s industrial infrastructure, with special stress on the Railways and bridges.

There have been problems over the Teesta water-sharing proposal, which has been stymied by the strong opposition from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. But New Delhi is genuinely appreciative of Dhaka’s requirements and concern.

Meanwhile, power-deficient Bangladesh would receive 500 megawatts of power from India daily to meet its rising demands and the project has been launched already.

Firing by the BSF along the Indo-Bangla border was always a sore point for Dhaka, but of late the situation has improved significantly, with fewer incidents and casualties.

India has also effectively increased the import of more Bangladeshi items at reduced or zero tariff including garments which has helped the smaller country close its large trade gap with India.

The picture that emerges is of a positive situation that encourages optimism. The question remains, would things remain the same if the BNP assumes power.

Of late, there have occurred some changes in the BNP’s earlier virulent anti-India approach. Over the last decade or so, during most of which the BNP has been languishing out of power, the stature of India as the major player in the South Asian region has increased. Whether it likes it or not, the BNP has to come to terms with the region’s emerging scenario.

This explains why senior BNP leaders in their recent utterances have conceded that their earlier criticism and fears expressed about India might have been somewhat overdone. Some have claimed to have taken up the matter even while Khaleda Zia was the prime Minister, obviously without effect.

In case they were to be re-elected, they now argue, there would be no reason to fear that ipso facto, relations with India would again come under the kind of strain seen before.

During the present festive season, Zia took the somewhat unusual step of announcing to the Hindus in Bangladesh that they had nothing to fear from the BNP as a community. Her party was committed to ensuring all rights for the minorities. Talk about the BNP’s hostility towards the minorities was ‘a myth’, she said.

While her sentiment was praiseworthy, it would be difficult to say how much it would reassure the addressed communities, in the light of their travails and experience under the BNP rule.

Therefore the outlook for Indo-Bangla relations remains mixed in the short term, the more so under a BNP dispensation. Significantly, Zia cried off a scheduled appointment with the Indian president Pranab Mukherjee during his visit to Bangladesh some months ago, on the ground of ‘urgent business’. The decision naturally filled much diplomatic speculation.

On its part, Indian Foreign Ministry officials and others have kept in touch with leaders of both the AL, the BNP, even the Jatio party led by Ershad. Bangladesh diplomats too have kept the BJP leader Narendra Modi in the loop about their desperate need for the Teesta waters, among other things.

Indian policymakers must try to ascertain in the days ahead to what extent is the BNP’s apparent softening of its earlier hardline stance on India is genuine. Surely, it cannot be the product of any sudden newfound fondness for its bigger neighbour.

As Bangladesh analysts point out, it may be owing to the dynamic political changes occurring within Bangladesh during the past decade or so. As with the rising generations of new young voters in Pakistan or India, there is a growing vocal youth lobby in Dhaka or other areas, which is hungry for economic progress and development. It is less concerned with religious matters, traditional national hates and peeves. It is more open, better educated, and internationalist in outlook than previous generations. They see themselves as part of the growing global village where youth has the dominant voice and help set the political agenda.

To increasing numbers of this rising new class of young voters, the more militant or conservative slogans of Hindu or Muslim fundamentalists make less sense than the challenge they face in achieving a better life for themselves.

The key to this is more information sharing, more trade, cultural exchanges and visits, learning from the positive achievements and experiences of’ the Other’, who need not always be perceived as an implacable enemy for all times.

As the BNP and the militant Islamists have recently learnt to their chagrin in Bangladesh, people are willing to counter the extremist challenge if necessary with arms on the streets – a sobering thought. They are not willing to submit silently to their dictates all times to come.

Could it be that the BNP has finally woken up to face the reality in Bangladesh?

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