Manmohan visit and gnawing questions

Photo: AFP

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's maiden visit to Bangladesh was accompanied with great fanfare and high expectations. For months, behind the scenes efforts were seemingly devoted on both sides of the border to tidy up several important and long awaited agreements. These agreements would not only have economic ramifications, but also political and relational ones.
Indeed this was a rare opportunity to open the doors, mend the fences, and reach out to one another. By doing so the two nations could come closer as partners in development, build a grand future from which to reap aplenty, and work towards a greater unity, at least in spirit. The anticipation was of a rare quality that there would be several momentous accords (water, power, transit, maritime boundaries), leading to heightened cooperation between the two nations with synergistic benefits distributed widely to the peoples of the two countries. Heaven knows, it could have even paved the way for others in the region to join in and gather the fruits of collective endeavour, eventually toning down the rivalries and animosities that have plagued them for decades and depressed development.
The morning headlines, sadly, told a different story, deflating all expectations: the major accords were being shelved. After months of shuttling by the emissaries, a few significant accords would surely be hailed as "harbingers of prosperity to both our countries," as the Indian PM expressed post hoc. The startling outcome of the summit leaves one wondering: "Is this the best we could really do?" Gowher Rizvi, Advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, opined that "Bangladesh gained a lot." If expectations are contrasted with outcomes, most would say it was trifling. The advisor needs to do a better selling job!
One has a nauseating feeling that high expectations need to be tempered when it comes to how "subcontinentals" work with each other: often calculating, conniving, nervous, half-serious, with hidden agendas, and constantly looking backwards. Rare and unexpected are the moments of boldness and imagination in their leaders that usher in a groundswell of hope that we can rise together, commune together, and for once look out for each other.
Many questions also arise from this highly anticipated event-of-an-era turned into a non-event. Especially, to allow the event to fizzle out with such innocuous ending, with the entire region watching, how is this to be explained? Would this happen if the Indian PM was penning an accord with the Americans, the Europeans, or the Chinese? Could the behind-the-doors agreements be shelved with such abruptness and one-sidedness?
Also, how could the vaunted prime minister of India make such a significant trip unless the agreements were rock solid? Were we not going to witness a perfunctory signing ceremony with great flourish? And how could one loud squeak from Mamata Banerjee, apparently well oiled, overturn the entire cart? If this was a domestic political issue, why was it not resolved internally before bringing it into the bilateral space?
A more intriguing question is whether Mamata's recalcitrance was a managed ploy in the context of national interests and power asymmetries. Analysts have repeatedly shown that the status quo favours India, where the current share of diverted river waters continues to provide greater gains to India, where bilateral trade has benefited India much more than Bangladesh, where Bangladesh is economically more dependent on India than its reverse, where maritime boundary disagreements have restricted Bangladesh from exploiting resources from the ocean floors that India may be eyeing hungrily, and where Indian culture has made deep inroads into Bangladesh, influencing consumer preferences and much more.
Cynical as it may sound, could it be possible that all the pre-summit activities were a mere façade, that the ultimate goal was simply to maintain the status quo, and Mamata's recalcitrance served as the perfect ploy? Such is the prerogative of sizeable asymmetries in power. If one may mischievously ponder, was Mamata an accomplice in a deep finesse? But what about the transit issue: doesn't India stand to lose by having to shelve it too? Perhaps it does, but since the issue is still mired in substantial controversy, the Indians may have decided to scuttle it for the time being. From a comprehensive perspective, the cost-benefit best supported the status quo.
If one may surmise alternatively, did the centre or Trinamul have something to gain by discrediting the other? By backing out so easily, citing Mamata's difficulties, was the centre's intention to discredit Mamata and her party for some long term objective? Or did the Trinamul Congress have an axe to grind with the centre, thereby creating the fiasco? Whatever these internal feuds, why was the Bangladesh summit used so blatantly? Was Bangladesh, thus, a mere pawn in the arcane power politics of India? Bangladesh's uncharacteristically subdued response to the sequence of events also bears reflection.
Whether India gains by maintaining the status quo or whether some internal political equation was played out, India did take a hit on the global stage. By trivialising the visit, India's posture and attitude, that it can change the rules of engagement willy-nilly, was reinforced. The trust deficit that this will have created will likely take its toll in India's future negotiations with others, especially in the region.
As for the name Mamata, it signifies "motherly love" that seemed to be reserved only for her progeny (the people of Paschimbanga); others in her neighbourhood, she made very clear, would have none of it. This is quite contrary to her statement to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, upon becoming Chief Minister that "Both Bangladesh and West Bengal will flourish and we will work together in fostering ties between [us]." Are we to believe her words or her actions? Clearly her actions smack of deep self interest and disregard for a neighbour's needs. On this side of the border, Mamata is one mother and her love that will not be easily forgotten, unless she comes up with something spectacular, and very soon, to reveal her true intentions. One can only hope that Advisor Rizvi's comment: "Mamata is a very close friend of Bangladesh, she loves us…" will be vindicated.
In my conjectures there is a lesson: At this level of inter-governmental engagement, working towards a vision of the future, expectations must be managed far better and match outcomes. Otherwise questions will arise. And in trying to address the gaps, political aspirations of many may hang in the balance.

The writer teaches at Pennsylvania State University and is Editor, Journal of Bangladesh Studies.


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