Will a change in India affect Bangladesh?
IN less than a month India will announce its new parliamentarians elected in a marathon election process lasting over six weeks. If the predictions of the political pundits hold out it is likely that the alliance led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will come out with the largest number of elected representatives and form the next government. There is also wide speculation that Narendra Modi, the current chief minister of Gujarat, who is riding on a popularity wave of BJP supporters, would be the next prime minister of India. But irrespective of whether or not Narendra Modi becomes the next prime minister of India, the polls heavily lean toward a new government in India without the Congress, the party that ruled for the last ten years. This prospect seems to have stirred some concern in many quarters in Bangladesh. Will a change in government in India affect bilateral relations?
In Bangladesh's forty three years of existence, Indian Congress or Congress-led alliance held the helm of India's federal government for nearly two-thirds of the period. Congress held power during our Liberation War and for nearly twenty five years after that, albeit with a break of about three years of non-Congress government from 1977-1980. Bangladesh politicians, in particular those of Awami League, had developed a close relationship with Congress leaders during the War of Liberation and thereafter, which would reflect in our foreign policies and close economic and trade relations immediately after liberation. This led to a false belief among some that the apparent coziness and familiarity of the leaders of the two parties shaped our relationship with India. The current hypotheses of a close relationship between the countries also follow from the same fallacy of presumed personal bond between two government leaders. These assumptions ignore the essential dictum of foreign policy of a country, which is self-interest.
There are two stark examples of how two former non-Congress governments in India dealt with its neighbours to alter their attitude.
The first relates to Bangladesh. India-Bangladesh relationship soured after violent changes in Bangladesh politics and ushering in of a new regime led by the military. A very warm and cordial bilateral relation turned cold and remained that way for a few years until Congress suffered a major defeat in 1977 and, for the first time ever, a non-Congress government, led by Morarji Desai, took over the helm in India. Disproving the concept that Congress was the only friend of Bangladesh, Desai made a visit to Bangladesh ostensibly to show India's friendliness. One of the major outcomes of this visit was discussion on the thorny Farakka Barrage, leading to formation of a Joint River Commission by the two countries.
The second relates to Pakistan. When BJP came to power in 1996 for the first time after trouncing Congress, India's relationship with Pakistan was at the lowest ebb. In late 1998 and early 1999, Vajpayee began a push for a full-scale diplomatic peace process with Pakistan. With the historic inauguration of the Delhi-Lahore bus service in February 1999, Vajpayee initiated a new peace process aimed towards resolving the Kashmir dispute and other conflicts with Pakistan. His visit to Pakistan in 1991 led to the Lahore Declaration, ushering in a commitment to dialogue, expanded trade relations and mutual friendship, and a goal of denuclearising South Asia.
The examples are cited to illustrate the reality that a country's foreign policy and bilateral relations are based on its national interest. Morarji Desai in 1979 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were looking after their own country's interest when they dealt with Bangladesh and Pakistan. Desai was concerned that managing diverse divisive groups in eastern India would not be effective with a non-friendly Bangladesh. Vajpayee was of the view that a nuclear armed Pakistan could be better managed with friendly gestures rather than hostile. The relationship between India and Bangladesh was no different in BJP period than either before or after.
Personal closeness between leaders of countries does matter in forming bonds and understandings, but this is not a substitute for fundamental aspects of bilateral relationship, which is each country's own interest. These interests are best achieved by maturity of statesmanship, strategic positioning, and deeper understanding of the views and policies of the other country.
Governments come and go, but countries and people remain for long. With impending changes in India our leaders need also to rise up to the challenges of new relationship and new dialogues. Our rhetoric needs to be supported by plans, both tactical and strategic, to keep bilateral relations mutually beneficial.
Despite the apparently close friendly relations with India in the last decades there still remain unresolved issues between two countries, water sharing and territorial exchanges included. India has also some unmet wishes, including transit and transshipment, and concerns over terrorism. A new government in India will look upon these with as much earnestness as the one before. All of these require deft and competent handling on our side. I hope we will be ready both politically and technically when the change comes.
The writer is a US based commentator and political analyst.