The Next Step
THE recently concluded visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India for the first formal summit meeting of her new regime, with her counterpart Dr. Manmohan Singh, promises much. It would, however, be unreasonable to assume that in such a visit outstanding problems, left festering due to the neglect of previous regimes, would be subject to instantaneous resolution. Nor may we expect that anything would happen to warrant the leader of the opposition laying out a carpet of thorns for the returning delegation or indeed to now launch a political movement to protect our national sovereignty.
Since our prime minister is now committed to a process of Din Bodol, she possibly hoped to extend this agenda into the realm of Indo-Bangladesh relations. Such changes in relations, which tend to become petrified due to the failure of previous regimes to act decisively, will take time. Most regimes in the past have lacked both the will and the courage to resolve outstanding issues lest they have to back down from their maximalist demands.
The end result of such a strategy of inertia in Indo-Bangladesh relations has largely worked to the disadvantage of the smaller neighbour, which happens to be Bangladesh. Time and tide waits for no country, it moves on and usually in favour of the larger party. Sheikh Hasina, thus, needs to take cognisance of the fast changing realities which continue to influence the balance of power in interstate relations.
Embarking on a new phase in Indo-Bangladesh relations at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, Bangladesh's leaders need to recognise that India has moved a long way from the years of the 1970s when our initial relations were forged. Then, India was part of the fault line in the Cold War where, countries in a state of contention with India, could expect to invoke some sympathy if not support from the United States and even China. India, large as it was in size and numbers compared to Bangladesh, was still a developing economy, plagued by economic problems, and much more vulnerable to external economic pressures.
Today, India is on the way to becoming a global power. Its economy is now highly diversified, much more modernised and hence competitive in global markets. In such frontier areas as information technology it is emerging as a global leader. In the next two decades, India is projected to graduate into becoming the third largest economy in the world (in purchasing power parity terms), after China and United States.
As a result, India is being wooed by all the major economic players, including China, which is now India's second largest trading partner, and may, in the next few years, emerge as India's largest economic partner. South East Asia also seeks partnership with India and is seeking to build closer economic and transport links.
The significance of this transformation in India's fortunes and its place in the global arena, is that it no longer needs to be over-concerned with the negative responses to its overtures to its immediate neighbours, which include Bangladesh. It is obviously advantageous for India if it can earn the friendship and cooperation of its neighbours. It would be both sensible and statesmanlike for it to extend its global reach, situated within a harmonious neighbourhood. However, the establishment of such a zone of harmony is hardly indispensable for establishing India's presence in its global and regional relations, where much bigger opportunities beckon than are on offer in its immediate neighbourhood.
In the circumstances indicated above, if Bangladesh prefers to remain disconnected from its larger neighbour this is certainly inconvenient for India and will add to the costs of its economic transactions with its North-East region as well as its Eastern neighbours. But India has already initiated plans, at a recent India-Thailand-Myanmar summit, to bypass Bangladesh, with the three countries agreeing to invest in upgrading the Asian Highway which runs through these countries so that it becomes a superhighway for trade and transit. India has also initiated moves for establishing connectivity between North-East India and Sittwe port in Mynmar, through investing in upgrading Myanmar's roads and navigability in the shared Kaladan river route to the port.
For the full version of this article please read this month's Forum, available free with The Daily Star on February 8.