FM's New Delhi trip: Substance left for PM's visit
A major diplomatic event has just been completed. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni has just returned from her official visit to New Delhi visit (September 8-10). A Joint Statement (JS) issued after the talks indicated that these were held in a cordial and friendly atmosphere where both sides reiterated their desire to move the relations ahead. The FM held official talks with her counterpart, Indian External Affairs Minister Mr. SM Krishna. She paid a courtesy call upon the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who mentioned that India attached the highest importance to its relations with Bangladesh. He hoped that a new chapter of Bangladesh-India relations would be written with the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India soon. Dipu Moni also called on Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Parliamentary Affairs and Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. Conspicuously left out was her proposed meeting with Sonia Gandhi according to information made available before her visit.
In the joint statements (JS), the two sides reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral relations. On specifics, the sharing of the Teesta waters was discussed. The Foreign Ministries of the two countries have been mandated to move negotiations forward on this issue. Bangladesh agreed to discuss making Ashuganj a port of call under Article 23 of the Inland Water Trade and Transit Agreement and agreed to let India use this port for a power plant in Tripura. India agreed to facilitate Bangladesh - Nepal and Bangladesh -Bhutan connectivity. Both sides agreed on containerized movement of cargo by train and trail. On other trade related matters, the two sides reviewed the existing situation and agreed to strengthen the existing institutional mechanisms to enhance trade. Bangladesh agreed to discuss use of Chittagong port by India. On power issues, India agreed to provide immediately 100 MW of electricity and to discuss the feasibility of power grid inter connectivity from India to Bangladesh. On border demarcation, both sides expressed intent to resolve unresolved issues. A couple of important decisions were made on border trade. On security, the two sides reiterated their earlier stand not to allow each other's territory to be used by terrorists and to strengthen cooperation on terrorism. The two sides agreed to conclude three agreements on mutual assistance on criminal matters; transfer of sentenced persons; and combating international terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking.
Bangladesh-India relations have been stagnating over the last seven years despite very compelling geopolitical historical relations for both the countries to be close friends. The victory of the Awami League with a massive mandate and the return of the Congress in India to power raised expectations that Bangladesh-India relations would move forward. Unfortunately, in the last eight months that the AL has been in office, relations have not moved anywhere. Instead, the Tipaimukh controversy has injected into the relations a new element of possible discord.
Many expected that traditional close relations between the Awami League and the Congress would be reflected during the Foreign Minister's visit. However, the JS does not reflect that optimism. On Tipaimukh, which is now hovering in the background as a dark cloud, the JS has simply mentioned that Bangladesh side welcomed the reassurance given by India that no steps will be taken to harm Bangladesh. It is true that the Indian Prime Minister had earlier assured Sheikh Hasina on Tipaimukh. That, however, has not set fears in Bangladesh at rest. The parliamentary delegation that visited India on the issue has also not fully rested Bangladesh's apprehensions. The JS will also not lessen people's fears and apprehensions for it does not suggest that Bangladesh's fears were fully conveyed to the Indian side.
On the water issues also the JS has given no cause for optimism. The concession given by Bangladesh to India for use of Ashjuganj port to facilitate building the Palatana power project in Tripura and assurance to allow India to use the same port as a port of call under the IWTTA is substantive concession/assurance. On trade issues where Bangladesh has very good reasons for feeling aggrieved, there is simply an expression of intent with no concrete concessions given. The JS' one positive aspect is India's agreement to facilitate Bangladesh-Nepal and Bangladesh-Bhutan connectivity that Bangladesh has more than reciprocated on the Chittagong port. India's offer for credit line in the railways sector is another positive inclusion in the Joint Declaration. The demarcation of the maritime boundary that is a major unresolved issue of tremendous importance to Bangladesh has been left out. India's requests on connectivity (transit) have also not been reflected in the JS.
There have been many visits in the past by Bangladesh Foreign Ministers to New Delhi. Those visits have failed to move relations forward. This time however, there could be a reason why the JS has not gone in depth on most substantive issues. Our Prime Minister would soon go to New Delhi for discussing our bilateral relations with her counterpart. Hence, the Indians must have left the substantive matters and in depth discussions for the summit level talks between the two countries.
The above notwithstanding, the Foreign Minister must have brought with her information and experience that could be immensely important for the forthcoming Summit talks between the two country that have not been reflected in the JS. These could now go to the preparation of the Summit talks. Going by past experience, Bangladesh-India relations cannot achieve a paradigm shift so long as it is left to bureaucrats and once in a while to the Foreign Ministers and only on very rare occasions to the highest level. It is time to reverse the pyramid to send a political signal from the top to the bureaucrats and ministers to improve relations. Neither side so far has shown this political will. The stakes are too high and too important to allow bureaucrats to spin a web around these relations and keep it stagnant. It is time to break that web for the future of hundreds of millions of people in the two countries.
India is the bigger neighbour. It has the more compelling reasons to hold out the hand of friendship. It needs to show the world that it is a responsible power by treating its neighbours fairly so that it in return wins the respect of the major powers to be in their company. It has great security concerns arising from internal terrorist threats. India's civil nuclear deal with US under which India will have many nuclear power installations in the future should add significantly to its security concerns. Bangladesh can be the soft underbelly in these security concerns for which it is in India's interest that it should see a stable Bangladesh. That will depend to a large extent on how India shares the waters of the common rivers and resolves the other outstanding bilateral issues.
For India, showing the political will can be easy and it is a matter of surprise that it has not done so thus far. Instead it has conducted relations with Bangladesh on the strictest principle of reciprocity where sometimes India has demanded more of Bangladesh than it has been willing to give. On trade, for example, India gave Bangladesh duty free access for 8 million garments but later imposed countervailing duty to protect domestic producers. Such examples are galore.
It may not be easy for Bangladesh to demonstrate political will because of the dynamics of domestic politics. Unlike India, where the political parties are united on foreign affairs, in Bangladesh the party in power and the opposition are not so and when it comes to relations with India, they oppose each other as fiercely as they do on domestic issues. Nevertheless, without unity on relations with India between the ruling party and the opposition, we will not be able to show the political will to motivate India to resolve the outstanding problems. As Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina must make great efforts to bring the people behind her so that she can negotiate with India on behalf of the nation and just not her party when she undertakes her New Delhi trip. Her massive majority should encourage her to unite the nation just as her father had done in 1971. Dipu Moni could have started the process by talking with the opposition before going to New Delhi. That would have enhanced her position much more than she could have imagined.
The writer is a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies and a former Ambassador to Japan.