IN Bangladesh foreign policy, the "India factor" looms large. Many bilateral issues have been pending for a long time and Bangladesh cannot persuade India to resolve the issues, some of which are "bread and butter" issues affecting common people.
Both the AL government in Dhaka and the Congress-led government in New Delhi have the unique opportunity to discuss and settle some of the prickly bilateral issues, leading to a range of positive political and economic relations between the two countries. The opportunity must not be missed.
In this context, Dr. Dipu Moni's visit to New Delhi between September 7 and 10 assumed added importance. It is reported that the Bangladesh foreign minister's visit also laid the groundwork for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's planned visit to the Indian capital later this year.
The foreign minister besides meeting with her counterpart S.M. Krishna, reportedly met Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, and the ministers of finance, water resources, energy, and railways. These meetings have demonstrated that the Bangladesh government is keen to settle a gamut of bilateral issues.
For Bangladesh, these issues -- sea boundary, implementation of land boundary, including exchange of hundreds of enclaves, sharing of waters of trans-boundary rivers, deep concern on the proposed construction of Tipaimukh dam on the Barak River, transit through India to Nepal and Bhutan and reduction of trade deficit -- appear to be top priority.
For India, transit or transhipment by road or railway or waterway through Bangladesh, cooperation in terrorism, and extradition treaty with Bangladesh seem to be the priorities.
It is noted that during her visit, the foreign minister was able to discuss all bilateral issues with her counterpart, and India has agreed to provide at least 100MW of electricity to Bangladesh on a priority basis.
The two countries have agreed to expedite negotiations to finalise water sharing of the Teesta river. Both the sides discussed designation of Ashuganj as a new port of call under the internal water transit and trade agreement as well as use of Chittagong Port by India. India, on the other hand, reportedly agreed to provide Bangladesh interconnectivity to Nepal and Bhutan.
Integrated approach for resolution of bilateral issues
What India has to bear in mind is that maximising short-term advantages in its relations with Bangladesh is counter-productive in the long run. India must understand and appreciate the difficulties into which Bangladesh has been placed by India's not taking any initiative in resolving bilateral issues.
In the past, India sought to negotiate a single issue on a bilateral basis, without appreciating that it was connected with other issues and therefore did not admit an easy solution. In my view this approach must be discarded.
An integrated approach to all bilateral issues is imperative, rather than addressing issues piecemeal or sector-wise. Furthermore, India needs to view the issues of energy, water resources, transit and global warming through the prism of regional cooperation. It appears that both Dhaka and New Delhi are keen to develop cooperative relations in various sectors, and if India is able to create a suitable environment by resolving prickly bilateral issues it will be much easier for the Sheikh Hasina government to carry the people in developing a range of political and economic relationship with India.
India is an emerging power. What India has to do is adopt a regional policy-approach where all its smaller neighbours are on board for commonality of interests.
At the same time, Bangladesh has to live with the reality that it cannot remain insular from neighbouring countries and it, being geographically close to India and China, must explore the advantages of its strategic position for its benefits. It must act as a bridge between South and South East Asia through economic integration and interconnectivity with multi-modal transport.
Both countries need to make the same political, bureaucratic, intellectual, educational, cultural and media efforts to focus on each other's positive features. Often, some sections in the media in both countries highlight negative images of each other.
The majority of people in neighbouring countries look at India, the larger and resourceful neighbour with both admiration and apprehension. Admiration is felt because the neighbour, having common bonds of history and geography, is emerging as a global political and economic power. Apprehension emanates from stresses when neighbours are not sure of their position in the new geopolitical environment
Given the right spirit and the desire to live together in cooperation, there is no reason why the two countries cannot proceed with constructive relations for mutual benefit.