What was Sujatha Singh's message?
DEEP-rooted distrust between the two parties has split the nation, leading to total chaos. Confrontation between the government and the main opposition has led to violence in the streets and caused several dozen lives to be lost already. Serious disruption to communication has cut off Dhaka from the rest of the country, throwing the economy into a downward spin.
We all are aware of the background that has led us to this shameful situation. All the trouble is related to the next general elections. As it stands now the BNP-led opposition has not agreed to take part in the elections. Ershad's JP has also opted out. That leaves the AL and a few name-only parties contesting the elections.
International worries have been mounting as violence spread across the country, resulting in complete breakdown of law and order since October. United Nations Secretary General Ban ki- Moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry, the European Union, China, Japan, United Kingdom and above all neighbouring India have been involved in trying to defuse the situation.
UN Under-Secretary General Oscar Fernandez Taranco has spent six days (December 6-11) trying to bring the government and the opposition to the table for talks. This is Taranco's third visit to Dhaka. There are apparent signs that the two sides have agreed to resolve the crisis. British Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Sayeeda Hussain Warsi is scheduled to visit Dhaka on December 12 to speak to Bangladesh leaders.
The other recent attempt was made by the Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh. One wonders why a senior diplomat (government functionary) was dispatched to Dhaka instead of a senior politician. Earlier, Washington had sent Nisha Desai Biswal, Under Secretary for South and Central Asia in mid-November to mediate between the bickering parties. Nisha Biswal is a politician in President Obama's cabinet.
The reason why Delhi sent Sujatha Singh is not far to seek. Indian foreign policy is actually not decided by politicians. It is framed and implemented by the officers of the Indian External Affairs Ministry. Politicians only acquiesce to it.
Sujatha visited Dhaka (December 4-5) and met Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina with her delegation. What was significant was that she also had a one-to-one meeting with Hasina. Later, she called on the leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia and met Jatiyo Party (JP) Chief H.M. Ershad. What she told the interlocutors is not known. But two statements made by her are rather unclear and worrying.
Ershad, after meeting Sujatha Singh, told the press that she apparently expressed concern that if he did not go to polls the fundamentalist Jamaat-Shibir would rise and come to power. The other direct statement she made to the press is that India would like to see "maximum" number of parties taking part in the elections, under the provisions of the constitution. She is reported to have said that India wants stability in Bangladesh and that it wants to support the democratic process in Bangladesh.
Firstly, why did she tell Ershad that Jamaat-Shibir will come to power? How did she know that JP's skipping the polls will lead to such an eventuality? Secondly, what did she mean by "maximum" number of parties?
Will the elections be acceptable if several name-only parties joined the elections, boycotted by BNP? Bangladesh has 40 registered political parties, many of whom are in name only. Kolkata based newspaper Anandabazaar Protrika (Dec 6) reported that Indian High Commission officials in Dhaka had resented Ershad's statement for apparently distorting Sujatha's statement. Whatever may be the fact, one thing is clear; Sujatha did not clearly say that India wants to see an 'inclusive" election that includes BNP. She also did not openly state that India supports Awami League. Her nuanced diplomatic statements cleverly obscured India's position.
Sujatha assured Bangladesh leaders that India was sincere about ratifying the Land Boundary Agreement and signing the Teesta water sharing agreement. On December 5, the Lok Sabha went into its winter session but there is no sign of the LBA being tabled for vote. Surely, India will wait and see who actually forms the next government in Dhaka after the elections and then decide on the LBA ratification and Teesta treaty. Besides, the Congress-led UPA government is already on the back foot as the Lok Sabha polls are coming up in May 2014. Last week, five state legislative elections were held in India. Congress has lost four states to the BJP.
India's worries actually stem from its security concerns in the North Eastern states, where different insurgent groups have been operating for decades. India fears that if BNP comes to power in the next elections NE insurgents will again use Bangladesh as their springboard. In her meeting with Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, Sujatha expressed gratefulness for Bangladesh's support for India's security and hoped for Bangladesh's continued cooperation.
Since the hartal and oborodh began, Indian newspapers began reporting that people from Bangladesh have already started crossing over to India fearing more polls related violence. Delhi is surely worried over these reports of border crossings from Bangladesh.
Interestingly, a section of the Indian print media has been openly calling upon Delhi to support Awami League in the elections.
What was surprising was the breach of protocol that Bangladesh committed while handling Sujatha Singh. She was treated like a visiting minister, not an Indian government official. In the past also Indian foreign secretaries visiting Bangladesh have been treated differently, allowing them to hold meetings at the highest levels. Such breach of protocol demeans Bangladesh.
Sujatha Singh's whirlwind visit to Dhaka was not to mediate but to pass a message to the leaders of the feuding political parties. What that message was, no one will know. We leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.
The writer is a former ambassador and secretary.