Not a lost cause
Despite continuing efforts by vested parties and doomsayers, the recent lull in Indo-B’desh ties does not indicate that all is lost on the diplomatic front
Perhaps in recent times, so much space has never been taken to dwell on the deteriorating Indo-Bangladesh ties. Foreign Secretary, Harsha Vardhan Shringla's Dhaka visit on August 18 and the conjectures alluded to the perceived failure of the visit has thrown up so much of speculations and varied interpretations that it would look that all is over with the two neighbours. The media, particularly in Bangladesh, needs to take a major share of the blame for whipping up so much negative propaganda that a sense of despair has set in and an impression is created that there are slender chances of repairing the plummeting ties.
However, according to a few erstwhile Indian High Commissioners to Bangladesh and a couple of Bangladesh envoys who had handled India, instead of blaming each other, we need to identify the forces or circumstances responsible for exaggerating the fallout of Shringla's visit. Once that's done, both sides should address them decisively and correctively to minimise the damage inflicted.
A glance at how things unfolded with the commencement of Foreign Secretary's last month's Dhaka visit will spell out things, threadbare. The critics of the Indo-Bangla friendship pointed out that that Shringla was not accorded proper protocol and no one worth his stature received him at the airport. The Indian special flight carrying the Foreign Secretary didn't land at the designated airport but was cleared for a touchdown at a different strip. Then, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not easily grant an interview to the Indian emissary as reported in the press. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister didn't make himself available and instead positioned himself in Sylhet to escape meeting the Indian Foreign Secretary. Similar news occupied the medium trying to convey that Shringla was outrightly ignored.
These were enough to ignite the 'manufactured issue' and conveniently giving the anti-India forces on a platter to drum up the development in various fora especially In electronic media channels generating debates. The principal focus of such debates — participated in by some so-called and self-styled experts, is to remain in the picture frame and crying hoarse that China has replaced India in its geopolitical relationship with India.
Pakistan too took advantage of the happenings in the aftermath of the Shringla visit, airing thoughts that Bangladesh is now on the Chinese lap and very soon, out of wishful thinking, Bangladesh will express its solidarity with the Kashmiris, supporting Pakistan.
Such developments have been allowed to go on because the two sides had so far not come out with any categorical statement to allay the misconceptions prevailing for the last three weeks. Things are being permitted to flow at their own pace without factoring the adverse impact such laxity would have on the bilateral friendship. Perhaps a virtual address simultaneously by both Foreign Ministers that 'All is well' will help mend the damage.
It looks imperative as no one knows the details of Shringla's visit to Dhaka, what all he discussed even after a long wait to meet the Bangladeshi PM. It doesn't look feasible that the Indian Foreign Secretary went all the way to Dhaka under extraordinary circumstances to only discuss a COVID vaccine. It must be more than that. But the eerie silence at responsible quarters is proving to be counterproductive or that's what it seems to be.
All those in Bangladesh reeling under a perverse feeling or those who are deriving sadistic pleasure in Chinese border aggression against India on June 15 must be reminded that China's contribution to Bangladesh's liberation struggle was nought. It vetoed the resolution in the UN siding with Pakistan. Also, it recognised Bangladesh only in 1975 and more significantly within two weeks of Sheikh Mujib's assassination. Isn't it testimony enough that China is not a friend of Bangladesh? It's common sense to safely assume that China is trying to take advantage of the developments to expand its footprint. It's also, by default, playing the Pakistan card. Government of Bangladesh is not naive to ignore such overtures. But, a muted response can only give rise to misconceptions. This is helping no one except anti-India and pro-Pakistan lobbies in Bangladesh.
In the meantime, there are allegations by certain sections in the Bangladesh polity that Prime Minister Hasina is increasingly becoming complacent in her governance. She is perhaps overconfident with an uninterrupted rule for ten years with no political opposition whatsoever in sight to challenge her. If true, that's a discouraging sign.
Charges are also afoot, with many sycophants in the Government and in the ruling Awami League (AL) party, having gained proximity to Hasina while holding an unfavourable view of a robust friendship with India.
To keep Bangladesh constructively engaged, India is also needed to embark on certain proactive measures. The Indo Bangladesh Friendship society in Dhaka seems to be less active. Ex-students of Bangladesh whose alma maters have been various educational institutions in India can be encouraged to form associations, meeting at regular intervals chiefly to keep the India factor alive. Their presence and experiences can be harnessed by the Indian High Commission in Dhaka and its consulates in Chittagong and Rajshahi. It will also help in diluting the rising influence of the communal powers. Similarly, for Indian scholarships to Bangladesh students, small-time districts should also be considered for wider representation.
It must be remembered that for lasting Indo-BD relations, it should not be left to the respective governments alone. civil rights' groups, various associations etc., must be galvanised to ensure that the relations are not spoiled by the media by overplaying incidents like Shringla visit or by the interested entities. Media management by both sides should have a professional approach, with subtle state support for an optimal result.
It's also for consideration if India, in the near future, posts a High Commissioner to Dhaka, carrying sufficient seniority and a good Bangladesh background to handle things with professional acumen. Even a mature Bengali knowing politician could be a possibility to fill the slot. That is likely to increase the comfort level of Dhaka. The time is ripe now and the upcoming Mujib centenary celebration is the best opportunity to further cement ties. Still, all is not lost as it is made out to be.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst, has served in Bangladesh and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal