• Saturday, July 26, 2014

SUNDAY POUCH

Sushma Swaraj's trip to Dhaka

Ashfaqur Rahman

There were high expectations of the people in Bangladesh regarding the outcome of the talks during Indian External Minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Bangladesh. True, it seemed that the first meetings were to 'read each other's minds.' But we had much to seek from India. Issues like the Land Border Protocol Ratification (since 1974), sharing of the waters of Teesta river between the two countries as well as sound border management were pending in our joint portfolio. In our agenda for the future, it was India that took the initiative and told us things which had little substantive content and more of what the previous Congress government told us to consider. This was the matter of establishing connectivity in transport, energy, exchange of ideas and knowledge. What is new in all this for Bangladesh? It means giving transit, buying electricity from India and listening with rapt attention about how excellent India's science and technology and culture are.
What was striking and new in Sushma's speech was the outlining of her government's approach towards youth development and youth-led development. This resonates much with the thinking of our youth. Her party's pursuit of active engagement with all of India's neighbours is another aspect that resonates well. We should have given this idea to India as we also feel that it will ensure security, stability and prosperity in the region. We heard all this from Sushma and liked it.
Sushma's message to Bangladesh leaders was that democracy requires building strong institutions and promoting a culture of tolerance, inclusion and respect for differences. This is like music to our ears. BNP leader Khaleda Zia, in her dialogue with Sushma, made the point that the present Awami League government is not a government which has been elected based on the principle of inclusivity. Sushma avoided the controversy and moved on. So India should also adhere to these precepts too.
There was nothing new to report about specific economic projects, but there should have been. Bangladesh could have spoken about the new infrastructure projects between the two countries. Our prime minister has a deep vision that includes Bangladesh, North East India and the Bay of Bengal. We could have spelled out these thoughts more elaborately.
It must be recalled how qualitatively different was the visit of our PM to Delhi in 2010 soon after she assumed power. She made a paradigm shift in our bilateral relations with India by giving India security assurances against insurgencies from North East separatists. Why couldn't some tectonic shift in our relations also be discussed? Maybe when our PM visits India or PM Modi visits us, we can expect such policy changes.
Two issues were not mentioned by Sushma. One was the matter of the so-called 'illegal migrants' from Bangladesh. The other was the great flow of remittance amounting to almost $4 billion from Bangladesh (Indian statistics) to India. The first was a good development. It shows Modi's wise counsel and pragmatic approach towards bilateral relations between the two countries. Regarding remittances, we should not feel worried. India should allow Bangladesh services to invest in India and send remittances to Dhaka, to equalise this bilateral trend.
We did not discuss military cooperation between India and Bangladesh. Perhaps it did not find any mention in any open discussion. There is big power rivalry in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. We must coordinate our defense strategies with India, China and the US to face traditional and non-traditional threats in the future. Of course, these items must claim their priority in the next discussions.
There was great interest in Bangladesh about Sushma's visit. This was rightly so. It only demonstrates how much we want to talk with our neighbour and open the various doors of genuine cooperation. We cannot afford to remain in the past. Allowing big equipments to transit overland to build the Palatina Power station in Tripura was a sound move by Bangladesh. Allowing India to move 10,000 tons of food grains from West Bengal to Tripura free of cost is another good gesture. India should not forget these, and should institutionalise these movements so that Bangladesh receives its monetary benefits. India should consider movement of cars and trucks from Bangladesh to India, Nepal and Bhutan at no cost or little cost. India may build the infrastructure for the benefit of connectivity and for bringing prosperity in this region. India's decision to give 5 year multiple entry visa for Bangladeshi nationals below 13 and above 65 years of age is a heartwarming gesture. We should reciprocate without any qualms now.
Perhaps our bilateral journey, which was stymied by the chief minister of West Bengal during the tenure of the weak Congress-led government under Manmohan Singh, will get another boost with the visit of Sushma Swaraj.

The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current issues.
E-mail: ashfaque303@gmail.com

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, June 29, 2014

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