Sunday, December 05, 2021

A season of change

The Bangladesh verdict gives India and Bangladesh a unique chance to work on their relationship

Arvind Gupta & Ashok K Behuria |
January 6, 2009 4:30:18 am

The election results in Bangladesh must have surprised even the most ardent sympathisers of Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. The Awami League-led Grand Alliance was expected to do well but no one had predicted that it would win more than three-fourths of the assembly seats. The rival four-party Alliance,led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has been reduced to pygmy size with BNP winning only 29 seats and Jammat-e-Islami merely two.

The elections have been certified as free and fair. The Bangladesh electorate has clearly spoken in favour of secularism,economic development and democracy. In giving overwhelming majority to the Awami League,the people of Bangladesh have not only rejected the policies of the four party alliance during 2001-2006,they have also indicated that confrontationist policies followed by the two major parties should be given up.

What do the electoral results mean for India-Bangladesh relations? The five years of the BNP led four party alliance rule were not good for bilateral relations. The various constituents of the four party alliance had an anti-India mindset. Things improved somewhat during the two years of military-backed caretaker government,but barely enough.

Sheikh Hasina has an unprecedented opportunity to put India-Bangladesh relations back on track. During her earlier tenure as PM (1996-2001),India and Bangladesh signed an important agreement on sharing of the waters of the Ganges — a uniquely generous treaty for Bangladesh. But Sheikh Hasina was tentative in her approach because of opposition and army pressure. Given her brute majority this time,she has a rare opportunity to overrule objections from anti-India elements. For this to happen,the government and the people have to convince themselves that a close relationship with India will bring enormous economic benefit to Bangladesh.

In the Awami League manifesto,titled ‘Charter for Change’ there was a pointed reference to the party’s commitment to friendly relations with “India,Nepal,Bhutan and Myanmar”,as well as “regional and sub-regional cooperation”. It is interesting while India was mentioned by name,Pakistan was not.

The manifesto is a comprehensive and pragmatic document. It focusses on the development of Bangladesh and covers rural development,energy,water resources,Asian rail and highways projects,development of information and communications technology,human resource development,infrastructure development,etc. If Bangladesh wants,India can cooperate with it precisely in these areas. Cooperation in these areas will be of great benefit to both the countries as well as the region.

India realises that a good relationship with Bangladesh is in its own interest. In the recent past India has followed a policy of not pressurising Bangladesh to make any concessions — like on the transit issue — for which it is not ready. India should,at the same time,expect the Bangladesh government to show sensitivity to India’s genuine security concerns.

It is in Bangladesh’s interest to allow Indian investment. Mega investments from India like those from Tata can be resurrected with some efforts. Bangladesh is in an ideal position to gain from giving rail and road transit to India as well as by selling surplus natural gas to it. Allowing the Asian highway to pass through the northeast of India via Bangladesh to Kolkata will also benefit both.

India should also address the Bangladeshi complaints about the unfavourable trade balance. It has already made a beginning by allowing duty-free garment imports. Bangladesh should boldly sign a free trade agreement with India and benefit from India’s growing economy just as Sri Lanka and Bhutan have done. Both sides should seriously think of the cost of non-cooperation which has resulted in mistrust and economic loss to both.

The two governments can begin with early resumption of high level political contacts. Perhaps,a high level political emissary could visit Bangladesh during the inauguration. A summit level meeting could be arranged within the first hundred days of the new government. All the bilateral dialogue mechanisms should be activated within the first half of 2009. The joint commission should meet at the earliest. Meetings between businessmen should be arranged. Contacts among the think tanks should be activated and intensified. An action plan to revitalise bilateral relations should be implemented.

Moments like these come rarely in history. The onus to capitalise on it lies with the new Bangladeshi government. India on its part,should respond with enthusiasm to any positive initiative. This is also the moment for both the countries to address the unresolved issues left over from history.

Dr Arvind Gupta is the Lal Bahadur Sashtri Chair at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ,and Dr Ashok K Behuria is editor,International Studies,Jawaharlal Nehru University,New Delh.

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