Which between the two countries has gained more from Bangladesh prime minister's visit to India this month? The question appears no less intriguing than the long-standing debate over which came first between chicken and egg. If we think in terms of the MoU on defense, which got signed, it's supposed to be the upper band of India's cheer. If we think of the Teesta water sharing treaty, which got shelved, it surely marks the lower band of Bangladesh's despair. Most other agreements, MoUs and bilateral documents signed between the two countries perhaps carry the weighted average of these two extremes, depending on which side is asked.
That Bangladesh isn't beside itself with joy is reflected in the indicators. There was no characteristic grand reception for the Prime Minister at the airport on her return from India. Billboards and banners haven't gone up anywhere in the country trumpeting the visit as something spectacular. The ruling party leaders aren't gung-ho about leveraging its outcomes. Even the Prime Minister herself couldn't hold back her disappointment with the West Bengal chief minister's intransigence over sharing Teesta water with Bangladesh.
Analysts argue that the Indian interest in the visit was driven by its anxiety over the fear of Chinese influence in Bangladesh. The Chinese companies growing their footprints in this country followed by the Chinese President's visit last October and the huge sums he pledged to Bangladesh have irked India. It got exacerbated after Bangladesh bought two submarines from China.
Pundits believe India was looking for some kind of collateral to fortify its interests in Bangladesh. They're convinced that the proof of that devil is in the details of the MoUs or agreements signed, which are yet to become public knowledge.
If India is thinking it has won, it may have won the night and lost the morning. Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina is a chastening glimpse of how it could be for India without her. If it has been all quiet at the borders, and the Indian insurgents are no longer hiding in Bangladesh, it's because India has a government in this country sincerely committed to improving Bangladesh-India relations. India may like to perpetuate this ideal relationship with Bangladesh, but it can't do so without responding to our genuine and urgent needs despite however “friendly” our government is.
The only way to have a lasting victory is to have a victory that lasts. And that can happen if India wins the hearts of people in Bangladesh. If it's fair, just and respectful to Bangladesh, the Bangladeshis are going to reciprocate the gesture. If India does otherwise, it must expect them to reciprocate otherwise.
Thus, the fear that India must have got a stranglehold on Bangladesh with a slew of secret deals shoved down its throat is more red herring than red alert. Bangladesh has come a long way in several areas, including geopolitics. To consider our bilateral relations purely from a “India vs. China” mindset, disregarding Bangladesh's aspirations for economic growth, is to ignore the reality – something that may prove expensive.
History is rife with examples of one wrong move or decision leading a country or an entire continent to disaster. My favourite is how the Catholic Church is blamed for creating the Black Death. In 1232, Pope Gregory IX told people that domestic cats were diabolical, and large numbers of cats and their owners were executed in Europe. Rats took over Europe, providing homes for the fleas that carried the Black Death. The devastating plague killed nearly 100 million people in the continent between 1347 and 1352.
A similar risk exists between Bangladesh and India. If either side culls the “cat” population, the “rat” population will take over. The cat being trust and confidence between the two countries, the rats are numerous: fundamentalism, terrorism and intolerance. Both countries will win in the long run only if both countries are committed to win together.
An unstable Bangladesh will always remain a threat to India's stability for the same abiding reason injury in one part of the body causes pain in another. Both countries need to appreciate that between them they have got interconnecting sensory nerves. Neither can do either any harm without each of them smarting from its referred effect.
The writer is Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.