India’s defence think tank analyses Khaleda tour

As expected, observations in the media – both in India and Bangladesh – as well as the public utterances of Begum Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) functionaries, about her recent visit to India have attracted controversy in Bangladesh. However, a degree of moderation laced with expectations of neutralising India`s earlier sceptical-cum-disfavouring posture towards the BNP – in the event of BNP coming to power in 2013 – has also been noticed among the BNP leaders in their comments while responding to their rival Awami League (AL) leaders` criticism of Begum Zia admitting her so-called earlier mistakes in dealing with India, during her previous premiership (2001-06). Notwithstanding these atmospherics, the gap between the approaches of the AL and the BNP towards India seems to have narrowed down to a degree.

So far as India is concerned, Zia’s visit seems to have been well organised and gone off well. Though for historical reasons an affinity is expected to remain in India and in its government towards the AL, it will be prudent for New Delhi to widen the political relationship with the other parties of Bangladesh. The objective should be to encourage the moderate elements in the Bangladeshi parties other than the AL. This effort can only be attempted if some degree of consensus is developed among the major political parties in India on matters concerning Bangladesh, viz. immigration of people across the borders both in the east and west of Bangladesh, water sharing of transnational rivers like Teesta, Brahmaputra, Barak, etc. as well as on issues of trade and transit. In the present political scenario in India, with smouldering civil-ethnic discontent in Assam, it may be too optimistic to expect such a consensus to be achieved. The dominance of a mercurial regional leader like Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress in one of the most crucially placed states of India vis-à-vis Bangladesh will also not facilitate matters in this regard.

There are however doubts in some circles in India about the sustainability of the posture showed by Begum Zia in India last week. Experienced diplomats like Veena Sikri (former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh) seem to be cautious on expectations of too much of a positive outcome. The interplay of political forces within the BNP, the position of BNP leaders like its Vice President Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, Standing Committee Member Tarikul Islam, Moudud Ahmed and Morshed Khan (incidentally all of them had reportedly adopted anti-India positions earlier within the party), and the conditions prevailing during the run-up to the polls in Bangladesh, will broadly determine the posture Begum Zia and her BNP finally adopts towards India in 2013. If the Government of India is able to maintain an apparent even-handed outward stance in relation to the political tussle in Bangladesh, the same is expected to help to an extent in achieving a consensual approach among the Bangladeshi political parties except the rabid fundamentalists.

Notwithstanding AL leaders, like its General Secretary Syed Asharaful Islam, stridently claiming that Begum Zia had developed a nexus of convenience with India for short-term political gains – intended for public consumption in Bangladesh obviously – criticism of India in the public and political domains in that country post–the Zia visit has not been significantly evident. The criticism has been primarily centred on Begum Zia’s so-called giving in to India and accepting the latter’s positions in respect of controlled movements of the people across the India-Bangladesh borders, preventing the Indian north-east militants` activities in Bangladesh and maintaining the status quo.

It is the no–holds–barred struggle for political constituencies with muscle power, money and resources of various kinds including the extraneous, which will determine the outcome of the next polls. Both the BNP and AL are conscious of this fact. Against this backdrop, the BNP wants India to be as neutral as possible during the run-up to the Bangladesh polls. AL has, however, no basic apprehension about relations with India, though it would like to obtain whatever concessions it can with regard to soft border management, and on water sharing, particularly on Teesta. It may not be prudent for the Government of India, at this juncture, to press Bangladesh for an extradition treaty, though it is of vital concern to India to abort the activities of the anti-India militants in Bangladesh. Instead, it should only keep the dialogue on this issue alive for the present. It is unlikely that the AL Government can deliver on this issue at this stage.

The apparent goodwill built up between the Government of India and some of the Indian politicians on one hand and Khaleda Zia on the other through her recent visit needs to be capitalised upon judiciously, by keeping a manifestly even-handed stance on the internal politics of Bangladesh. Indications from New Delhi of expanded economic assistance to Bangladesh in future with assurances from Indian leaders to help in achieving a favourable trade balance with India will be politically rewarding irrespective of which party governs Bangladesh post the 2013 polls.

Gautam Sen is ex-Additional CGDA and presently serving as Adviser (Finance) of Government of Nagaland.