November 7, 2001


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G Parthasarathy

The Return of Khaleda Zia

Just over a week ago, National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra paid a brief, low-key visit to Dhaka carrying a message of greeting from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to his newly elected Bangladeshi counterpart Begum Khaleda Zia. This was a welcome initiative as there is a growing feeling amongst our smaller neighbours that New Delhi's almost obsessive fixation with General Pervez Musharraf's Pakistan has resulted in our ignoring their legitimate interests and concerns.

Mishra's visit came amidst growing concern across India at reports of the persecution and intimidation of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh. While South Block has correctly sought to downplay these developments, it would have been remiss on our part not to share our concerns with the Khaleda Zia government.

There is now recognition in Delhi that the fundamentalist electoral allies of Khaleda -- the Jamaat-e-Islami -- largely engineered these incidents. Begum Zia's electoral victory was, however, so massive that she does not have to depend on the Jamaat for running her government. But quiet diplomacy would be needed to ensure that the persecution of minorities in Bangladesh does not lead to an exodus into India.

There is a widespread feeling in India that while Sheikh Hasina's Awami League desires friendly relations with us, there are undercurrents of hostility in the approach of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Begum Khaleda herself. There are legitimate reasons for such concerns. Begum Khaleda's last term as prime minister was marked not only by a barrage of hostile propaganda, but also by a strong nexus between her government's intelligence agencies and the ISI.

They jointly assisted and trained insurgent groups operating in India's northeastern states, like the ULFA in Assam, NSCN in Nagaland and PLA in Manipur. The Indian and Myanmar armed forces had to mount a coordinated operation in May 1995 to deal with the infiltration of such groups that was promoted and assisted by the Bangladesh government.

It should be apparent to enlightened sections of the Bangladeshi government that with the international community now increasingly hostile to terrorism and the ISI itself being recognised globally as an organisation promoting terror, there is little to be gained by allowing their soil to be used for cross-border terrorism. Friendly relations with India and support for Indian insurgent groups cannot go hand in hand.

Policy planners in India must realise that it is now three decades since Bangladesh became independent. A new generation has emerged in Bangladesh, which is more interested in current issues of economic progress and prosperity than in what transpired in 1971. We should also not forget that the founder of the BNP in Bangladesh, General Zia-ur-Rahman, led the armed struggle of his country for its independence. He also provided a measure of stability, progress and economic development when he ruled his country.

In the recent elections in Bangladesh, the Awami League actually increased its vote share from 37 to just over 40 per cent. While the BNP's vote share rose to 37 per cent, it was able to sweep the polls because of its well-thought-out electoral alliance that won 46.4 per cent of the votes cast.

Apart from the anti-incumbency factor and its negative campaign working against the Awami League, younger voters appear to have rooted for the BNP. It is important for India to make it clear that it has no political preferences within Bangladesh and that New Delhi will seek constructive, harmonious and cooperative relations with any government that reflects the will of the people. We would expect that Bangladesh, in turn, understands that bilateral treaties signed by democratically elected governments have to be respected even when governments change. We will, hopefully be able to welcome Begum Khaleda in India in the not too distant future in this spirit.

Given the asymmetry in size and in economic and military potential, it is inevitable that Bangladesh's perceptions on relations with India will be clouded by doubts and suspicions. Larger neighbours are never loved -- they are, at best, respected. It is, therefore, important that our diplomatic exchanges with Bangladesh are conducted in a discreet, low-key manner and important outstanding issues are addressed accordingly.

Public memory in India being short, few people remember the horrific killing of our BSF jawans in Boraibari on April 16. The primary reason for such developments has been the inability of both countries to implement the provisions of the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement that requires India to return 111 'enclaves' in its possession to Bangladesh. We are in return to get 51 'enclaves' from Bangladesh. Barely 6.5 kilometres of the 4,090 km Indo-Bangladesh border are yet to be demarcated. This is surely not an insurmountable problem to address and resolve expeditiously, given the political will to do so.

While there has been considerable progress in the recent past in promoting people-to-people contacts with Bangladesh, it is in the sphere of economic relations that much remains to be done. There is an interest in India in purchasing natural gas from Bangladesh. The Khaleda Zia government appears to be prepared to take a fresh look at the sale of natural gas to India. There is a vigorous debate within Bangladesh on this issue. Any suggestion by India to hasten a decision will, however, be counterproductive.

Bangladesh will itself realise that excessive procrastination will lead to interested oil companies moving to other pastures. In the meantime, it is important to expedite discussions with Myanmar for finalising collaboration in hydroelectric and offshore gas exploration projects. Current estimates suggest that optimum utilisation of the offshore gas resources of Myanmar and our own gas resources in Tripura can more than compensate for any prospective supplies from Bangladesh. At the same time, given the growing political uncertainties in the Persian Gulf region, we should seek to meet the energy needs of states on our east coast with arrangements for supply of LNG from countries like Malaysia, Brunei and Australia.

SAARC was the brainchild of President Zia-ur-Rahman of Bangladesh. Khaleda Zia will have a genuine interest in seeing that this initiative of her late husband is nurtured. There is also a need to activate existing sub-regional groupings like the Growth Quadrangle comprising India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh and the BIMSTEC comprising Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka to identify projects that will foster economic cooperation across our eastern frontiers.

New Delhi should take a proactive stand in joining like-minded countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in working purposefully to implement the report of the SAARC Eminent Persons Group that has recommended that the entire South Asian Region become a Free Trade Area by 2008, a Customs Union by 2015 and an Economic Community by 2020. But to be a credible partner with a long-term vision of an economically integrated Asian neighbourhood, we will first have to get our own commerce ministry to learn to be more far-sighted and positive on issues of trade relations, especially in our immediate neighbourhood.

Bangladesh has sought the abolition of tariffs on 193 items covering 25 categories. Yet our mandarins in Udyog Bhavan seem to have little sympathy or understanding of the need to be forthcoming on such issues. The entire impact of Prime Minister Vajpayee's initiative for a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka was lost when the commerce ministry bureaucracy ensured that quantitative and other non-tariff barriers were placed on items of crucial export interest to Sri Lanka.

A similar mindset seems to afflict the mandarins of Udyog Bhavan on trade with Bangladesh. This is a pity, as Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran, who has created one of the most successful private media conglomerates in the country, genuinely believes in the merits of liberalisation. But India can never be a meaningful player in the global economic scenario and, more importantly, in its own neighbourhood, if it constantly protects inefficient industries behind insurmountable tariff barriers.

G Parthasarathy

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