Power play in Indo-Bangla relations | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 21, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 21, 2011

Power play in Indo-Bangla relations

Recent developments between India and Bangladesh have again begun to raise the question of where the relationship really stands. The caption of a recent newspaper article by a former diplomat -- "Vexing neighbour and tongue-tied government" -- encapsulates, pretty much, the nature of the relationship. Sadly, after forty years of sharing neighbourly proximity, the bonds of mutuality, reciprocity and trust between the two nations remain weak and uncertain.
India's dominating role has been recounted in various forums: The waters of strategic rivers have been diverted unilaterally, causing great distress and adversity for Bangladesh; India's border guards (BSF) have cold-heartedly gunned down Bangladeshis, even a few days ago, instead of adopting a more humane stance of taking captives and repatriating them; barbed wires have gone up over large tracts of the border, sending a dour message; Bangladesh's markets have been overrun by Indian products without reciprocal access (some claim systematic manipulation of the tariff structures in Bangladesh to curb local production, thereby sustaining unbounded access of Indian products); Bangladesh's trade with Bhutan was hindered for long because of India's intransigence to allow overland transit; and the matter of maritime boundaries remains disputed as India eyes the natural resources within Bangladesh's territory.
And now the planned construction of the Tipaimukh dam stares Bangladesh menacingly in the face, despite assurances of fair play and no adverse consequences. There are indications that Bangladeshis (including many policy makers) know little about the project's details -- the size of the structure, intended use, impact downstream and related questions. Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN) has, in recent times, raised many pertinent questions about the project and its consequences for Bangladesh. If India is serious about pursuing the project, Bangladeshis would like to have detailed answers to the concerns raised by BEN to allay their concerns. A live conversation on TV between experts on both sides would be a step in the right direction to fortify India's non-threatening intentions. This dam project may even be a ploy to try and extract more from Bangladesh.
Ploys and power plays like these, time and again, indicate the intense demands that India has continued to make on Bangladesh without giving much back. Even a senior Indian journalist, Kuldip Nayar, recently stated: "What India promised is nowhere in the horizon." And despite the flurry of cross-border negotiations and the visitations of the highly ranked, much remains suspended in "what has been said;" there is far too little on "what has been done." How can two neighbours co-exist in harmony when the bigger party's attitudes and intentions are non-committal and murky?
Reasonable and analytic thinking does exist among the cognoscenti on the Indian side about the need to maintain a reciprocal relationship. One recent article was captioned: "Why Bangladesh should matter to us." Yet, such words of wisdom fail to trickle into the consciousness and conscience of India's politicians.
Being the junior partner in the asymmetric relationship it is in Bangladesh's interest to maintain good ties with India and leverage it for mutual gains. But when India with its power advantage -- militarily, economically, and politically -- displays a casual, almost benign, attitude towards Bangladesh's concerns and continually rebuffs Bangladesh's attempts to befriend it, especially from a regime that is purported to be favourably disposed toward India, the relationship becomes open to interpretations. And this provides grist for the mill among quarters, within the country and outside, who do not want to see the relationship flourish.
Despite the power asymmetry, while India might arguably feel it can influence, even push, Bangladesh as it pleases, the trust deficit in the relationship will moderate India's actual influence, especially because expectations of desired outcomes from India have now become uncertain. Thus, Bangladesh's cooperation will decidedly dwindle under the status quo and is likely to reach new lows. And if India resorts to applying pressure, while there may be grudging compliance initially, gaining Bangladesh's favour over time will wane as various options are considered.
For example, to counterbalance India's revealed spirit, stronger links with China or other neighbours can be ratcheted up -- from increasing trade to conducting joint military exercises. If China begins to divert water from the Himalayas, India's protestations will likely fall on Bangladesh's deaf ears if there is a critical UN vote. Bangladesh can bring matters of discord to various world forums in a stream of vociferous complaints that can impact India's image in the global community. Bangladesh can also choose to look the other way if India's difficulties with insurgencies escalate. The corridor to India's northeast can be shut down, making it costly for India to monitor the region. And stifling access to a market of 160 million should sting.
If India continues to be intransigent about resolving the outstanding issues in fair and amicable ways, a downward spiral in the relationship would only be natural: from cooperation to compliance to conflict to relationship termination. This process is also likely to be hastened if there is no movement on the burning issues, a situation best avoided by both parties because of its serious implications -- human, social, political, and economic.
Investing in good neighbourly relations, on the other hand, can build a level of social capital that can be very useful in times of need. Nobody likes a thorn in their sides and Bangladesh need not be one, if only Indian leaders appear more progressive and statesmanlike, and less conniving and driven by pure self-interest.

The writer teaches at Pennsylvania State University.

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