WHILE most in Bangladesh overlooked or chose to disregard the Indian External Affairs Minister's comment in the Indian Lok Sabha amidst the euphoria of the passage of the Indian 119 Constitutional Amendment ratifying the 41-year-old Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) between Bangladesh and India, it did raise mild curiosity here because of the message that it carried. The Indian minister had said, “It is often alleged that India is a “big brother” in South Asia. But let me assure you India will never behave like a big brother but like an elder brother who cares about its neighbours.”
These are very encouraging words. And it conforms to the marked slant and reorientation of the foreign policy of the Modi government, which conjoins India's 'neighbour first' policy with its policy of international engagement. Evidently, India wants to shed its 'big brother' image which is more than a perception among the other regional countries, and it would not be wrong to suggest that its weight has been thrown about from time to time, often in more subtle than direct manner. And that perhaps is the view that the other regional countries hold too. This slant also demonstrates a bigger aspiration which is to attain a status of world power. It is to the credit of the Modi government that it has realised that without gaining acceptability as a regional power its aspiration to be member of the international Ivy League would not be fulfilled. Thus realpoltik is what motivates the Indian government's new look at the region. Undoubtedly, India has all the endowments to take the position of a world power, certainly of a power that can influence the region much beyond its immediate neighbours.
No country can or should grudge India's aspiration, and we in Bangladesh must now start to learn to live not only with a big neighbour as vast as India, one of the only two we have, but also a neighbour that acts great too; we have said before, bigness does not necessarily accord greatness to any country.
Sushma Swaraj's comments assume more significance in view of the impending visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh. Quite naturally, Modi could not have come earlier simply because it would have been meaningless to come to Dhaka without giving anything to Bangladesh. Given that Bangladesh had met all of India's security and strategic requirement, what Bangladesh has received so far are assurances only. Now that the last impediment to the implementation of the 1974 LBA has been removed with the enabling legislation, the time is most propitious for the Indian PM to visit this country.
We would like to take hope from the Indian Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh's declaration, coming a fortnight ahead of PM Narendra Modi's visit to Bangladesh on June 6, that Teesta water-sharing accord with Bangladesh will be finalised soon. Reportedly, Mamata Banerjee is not likely to accompany Prime Minister Modi because, according to an Indian newspaper report, the Paschim Banga Chief Minister had told her close aides that she “has done her job” by agreeing to the LBA and there was “no need for her to accompany the Prime Minister.” We would not like to read anything negative in that. But while Bangladesh newspapers in the last several days have carried reports of the many deals that are likely to be signed during the Indian PM's visit, the Teesta is not on the list.
There is the likelihood that the deal may become linked with state politics because to quote another comment, “Though the chief minister has responded positively so far on the Teesta pact, it would not be politically wise for her to associate with the agreement, as West Bengal goes to the polls in 2016 and water-sharing could be a major issue in North Bengal, where her Trinamool Congress doesn't have a strong base.” Thus what we in Bangladesh would like to know is how 'soon' will be soon. The 1974 LBA had run into 2015, and for some, a minute may consist of more than the usual sixty seconds.
Two years ago, we wrote in these very columns after the botched visit of Manmohan Singh that India had lost the chance to prove its greatness by standing Bangladesh up on the Teesta. Bangladesh would like to see India as neither a big nor an elder brother but a gracious neighbour that delivers on its commitment.
As for Bangladesh, while our foreign office has been engaged primarily in devising policies to coexist with India, we have failed to use our strategic importance to our advantage. More on that next week.
The writer is Editor, Oped and Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.