Engage with sincerity

Issue 24 - Mar 2009

Supriyo Chaudhuri

Hasina’s mandate
While India has its share of responsibility in squandering the goodwill it earned through its engagement in liberation war, Bangladesh was indeed a difficult nation to do business with. Successive governments since the 1980s plundered the considerable wealth and natural resources of Bangladesh to the extent that by 2001, the country was ranked as the world’s most corrupt state, beating Nigeria and a host of African nations in the game.
It is commonly agreed that the result of this election adequately reflects a consensus against corruption and political violence, though Sheikh Hasina is an old hand and presided over a coalition of existing parties. The results appear far more decipherable when the following arguments are considered:
First, Bangladesh has experimented and failed to evolve a third way, an alternative to the two major parties in the fray. Bangladeshis, after the two years of caretaker government, have realised that their democratic options would be limited, for some time now, to the two Begums.
Second, this victory is largely attributable to formation of effective coalition. Awami League has an extremely motivated following of roughly 35 to 40 percent of Bangladeshi electorate, and with the consolidation of anti-Bangladesh National Party votes through a broad-based coalition, they became unstoppable. However, it is prudent to note that this is a coalition victory more than it looks on surface (Awami League won a simple majority on its own) and Sheikh Hasina has to work with her partners if she has to create a sustainable government.
Third, an important factor in this year’s election were the first time voters—young men and women millennials—who care less about liberation struggle and are far more concerned about the road ahead. Bangladesh is a country of young people and this new generation is going to dominate the political agenda from now on.

The all new opportunity
Therefore, it is reasonable to expect Sheikh Hasina’s policies to be dominated by the dynamics of her mandate rather than any feeling of past affiliation. Such forward-looking perspective is going to be hard for even Sheikh Hasina to adopt—already a proactive pursuit of 1971 war criminals is overshadowing the government’s development agenda—but the relationship with India must be seen in the light of this mandate. Indeed, this victory presents India with an opportunity; it is much easier to pursue a common agenda with this administration than it would have been with a coalition involving the Jamaat.
Bangladesh, contrary to popular perception, is an extremely important state for India. It is resource rich and strategically located. Access to Bangladeshi natural gas will change the economy of West Bengal, and access to sea port in Chittagong and road transit rights through the country will transform the troubled economies of Indian North-East and integrate them far better to the mainland.
Moreover, Bangladesh is militarily important and strategically significant. India would not want a Chinese air base in Jessore, at any cost. Besides, Bangladesh has become the training ground for Pakistan’s ISI and its terror brethren. Rural poverty, and disaffected, unemployed urban youth provided the ideal recruitment base; the corruption and lawlessness allowed covert operations to go on. After much effort, the government of Bangladesh has pushed back some of these groups in recent months, but economic success and political stability will now be required to make those gains permanent.
India must engage with Bangladesh with this perspective. Even if it is a familiar Shiekh Hasina India will have to deal with, it is time for fresh thinking. It will have to build a relationship based on respect that a sovereign nation rightfully deserves, and treat this country with due consideration befitting an important strategic partner. A good start has been made with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s recent visit and two bilateral trade treaties in February 2009, which cover a number of issues including the transit arrangements. It is reported that there has been a broad agreement on action against terror groups operating out of Bangladesh.
However, to make such a treaty successful, India must give as it gets—more must be done to achieve a more balanced trade with Bangladesh (India has a surplus of $3 billion out of a $3.3 billion worth of exports); to enter into a permanent and equitable water sharing arrangement; sorting out the long-standing issues about land and maritime borders. Steps like these will allow Sheikh Hasina’s government to convince the Bangladeshi people that India is serious about the relationship. This will allow her to address other key issues, like Indian companies investing in Bangladesh, and sale of gas to India—steps, which will actually help reduce Bangladesh’s trade deficit with India— with greater confidence.
All this will demand a change of mindset in India. In the affairs of the subcontinent, New Delhi has thought and acted with fear and insecurity for too long. It is time India acts like a big country, and engages its neighbours with sincerity and fairness.