Dissecting Khaleda's ToI interview
YESTERDAY, The Daily Star printed an interview of Khaleda Zia taken by Jaideep Mazumdar of the Times of India on October 23 in her office in Dhaka. It was a short exchange but it did highlight how the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) looked at Indo-Bangladesh relations after the changeover of the government in New Delhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the driving seat. The interviewer probed deeply to find out whether she felt that the Modi government was shifting parameters that determined the matrix of bilateral relations traditionally.
The Times of India is one of the largest circulated English language newspapers in the world. Its present readership is estimated at 7.6 million. It was, therefore, evident that Khaleda Zia was careful in conveying the right tone while expressing her views. Her answers to the questions were diplomatic so as to avoid any controversy. She did not in any way want to embarrass the new government.
Two things came out clear from the interview. First she intended to give Modi time to change India's policies towards its neighbours, especially Bangladesh. In a way she indicated that Modi was yet to formulate these policies and therefore she was willing to wait a little longer. But she expects that the new policies would differ in some ways from the policies pursued by the previous Congress government and would help in bringing the two countries closer. The second aspect that was clear was that the BNP is willing to keep in touch with BJP top leadership in order to enable both sides to address all issues that will impact on bilateral relations.
On specifics such as sharing the waters of the Teesta River and the conclusion of the Land Boundary Agreement she blamed the AL government of having failed to “pursue this vital national interest of Bangladesh.” She took this opportunity to point out that the AL was not a legitimate government (as most of the AL members in the Jatiya Sangshad were not elected) and hence the Modi government does not take it seriously. That is why it is not able to engage in serious negotiations on these issues. Khaleda Zia knows that this is not correct. The sharing of the Teesta waters is stuck in the quagmire of the politics of Paschimbanga. The central government in New Delhi cannot do much until the state government agrees to the proposal, and this is not expected in the near future as the Chief Minister of Paschimbanga Mamata Banerjee is jockeying for her party, Trinamool Congress, so that it does not lose the vote bank she has created by denying water to Bangladesh.
The Land Boundary Agreement is also delayed because it awaits clearance by the Indian parliament since this will call for amendment to the Indian constitution. It would have been prudent if Khaleda Zia had pointed out India's failure on both the counts and the need for PM Modi to take steps to expedite the resolution of the two issues with his political acumen and support of his party in the parliament. She could have reminded the government of India that their resolution would have made qualitative improvement in bilateral relations.
Khaleda Zia, however, mentioned the sharing of the waters of all the common rivers between Bangladesh and India and the killing of innocent Bangladeshis in border areas, which are two other urgent matters that need to be addressed in order to improve bilateral relations. The issue of security and threats of terrorism from each country was also mentioned. She felt that close cooperation between the two countries was the key to improved bilateral relations.
On the matter of the Indian perception that AL was friendlier to India while BNP was not, Khaleda Zia reiterated that BNP viewed relations with India as based on principles of mutual benefit and respect. But how much of this is true in crafting bilateral relations with India is debatable. There is no doubt that leaders of Awami League were personally known to the Congress leaders and it was natural that these two parties understood each other better. How this impacted on bilateral relations remains to be seen.
The interview avoided discussing other special issues such as removing non-tariff barriers to promote trade with India. Also, the matter of Bangladesh investment in India was not mentioned. Bangladesh's relations with China and India's adversarial relations with the giant neighbour were not touched upon. The strategic changes taking place in the Indian Ocean with the US fraternising with India were not touched upon.
The interview, however, gave no picture to Indian readers about Bangladesh's emerging role in South Asia and in the region.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current issues.