Look East, Prime Minister Singh

By Siddharth Singh, 7 Aug, 2010

In his second term, Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has taken up the challenge of improving India-Pakistan relations in line with his conviction that a nation which wishes to see itself as a global power must move beyond regional rivalries with a small neighbour. Consequentially, the Government of India has spent considerable time and effort into building this relationship in the face of public skepticism at home following the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

While this effort is laudable, evidence does not seem point towards a possible success in this initiative. The recently leaked Afghanistan war dossier confirmed what was long known in the policy circles: there is no unified face of the Pakistani leadership as groups and individuals within the administration are working towards different goals. These goals include helping jihadi groups that intend to establish control of Afghanistan once the NATO – ISAF forces led by the USA leave the region, and those that intend to fight India in Kashmir.

The popular opinion among Indians after 26/11 has not been accommodative of any dialogue with Pakistan, at least not until action is taken against the perpetrators of the attacks in Mumbai. Such a single minded focus of Indian foreign policy on terrorism is not acceptable to Pakistan, as it wishes to see issues – particularly Kashmir – to be discussed and resolved too. As a result of this mismatch, a rather ugly public falling out took place in Islamabad recently between India’s foreign minister Krishna and his counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Furthermore, it is unlikely that popular opinion in Pakistan will become receptive of any concessions made by their government towards India.

The memories of the bitter history between the two nations cannot be undone easily; at least not at the current juncture when the uncertainties of the Afghanistan war are encouraging the Pakistani administration to keep its options open. This hasn’t stopped Dr. Singh from insisting on the continuance of the talks even in the face of strong political opposition in India.

On the other hand, the Indian government is missing out on a golden opportunity to once and for all bury a petty regional rivalry between Bangladesh and India. The circumstances surrounding this relationship are such that if proper time and effort are invested, India and Bangladesh could bury the hatchet and move towards a stable South Asia.

Only recently, a military led caretaker government in Bangladesh was replaced by a coalition led by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. This government has shown the will to have strong relations with India. Bangladesh is the 7th most populated nation and has shown larger increases in the HDI index than Pakistan has in the past few years. It is expected to show a real GDP per capita growth rate of 6.8% in 2010. The Grameen Bank is playing a great role in poverty reduction in the country. They have also shown a steady improvement in the Corruption Perception Index.

Most importantly, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh recently reinstated a ban on religion in politics, implying that Islamist parties can no longer use religion to garner votes. The unifying identity in Bangladesh isn’t religious; it is linguistic and cultural.

India’s relationship with Bangladesh hasn’t been great historically for a variety of reasons, and this is holding back both countries to varying degrees. Bangladesh blames India of faulty water management (principally, the building of the Farakka Dam) on India’s sides of the borders that causes flooding and water shortages at different times of the year in Bangladesh. Additionally, The Border Security Force (BSF) of India is blamed for killing ‘innocent cattle traders’ from across the border frequently (The BSF maintains that they only fire in retaliation to the cattle ‘smugglers’, as cattle trade isn’t legal between the two nations). India is also accused of treating Bangladesh as an inferior state that is supposed to be obliged and indebted to India for the help that India gave during her freedom struggle.

India’s principal issue of conflict is a result of Bangladesh’s ‘sheltering of anti-India insurgents’. This claim is being countered as the new government has shown resolve to readily arrest and hand over anti-India insurgents to Indian authorities. The political right wing of India also speaks out against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who cross over and do paltry jobs. Additionally, one incident that won’t be easily forgotten in India is the case where 16 BSF soldiers were killed by rogue Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) soldiers in 2001 (2 BDR soldiers were killed too).

However, India needs Bangladesh as much as Bangladesh needs India. For one, states and regions in India’s North East get completely cut off from the rest of the country in the face of local agitations, as was seen recently. This gives China a strategic advantage in the region, and this is critical given China’s claim over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. India needs Bangladesh as a transit route to easily access its North Eastern states. Bangladesh needs peace with India to keep its focus on development and political stability rather than be distracted by military concerns.

There exist several advantages in the scenario surrounding India and Bangladesh that simply don’t exist in the case of India and Pakistan. For one, India’s opposition leaders are in favor of having better relations with Bangladesh, while they have a hawkish stance against Pakistan. Secondly, there is no ‘natural’ flashpoint such as Kashmir in the case of India and Bangladesh which could independently derail talks. Thirdly, Bangladesh shows the potential of having economic and political stability in the decade to come and the government has a united face.

Hard work will be needed by India to woo Bangladesh’s opposition, however. This is where Dr. Singh’s task is cut out. He has to go the extra length to bury the bitter history between the two nations. India must start treating Bangladesh as an equal in the region and must unilaterally offer economic concessions and access to its markets. Being in a better position economically, India can afford to do this. Bangladesh might eventually trust India enough to reciprocate. India must also resolve the water management issues that affect the average Bangladeshi. In turn, India must demand transit to its North Eastern states.

Dr. Singh also needs to convince the opposition in India to support the development of Bangladesh, for only a prosperous Bangladesh will lead to a fall in illegal immigration. The Prime Minister can also mull over immigration reforms to allow Bangladeshis to legally work in labour deficit regions in India.

China continues to woo Bangladesh in its attempt to create a chain of China-friendly states around India’s border for obvious strategic purposes. It is time India swallows its pride and get real by engaging Bangladesh. Proactiveness and conviction by Dr. Singh will get India much more than what Pakistan feigns to offer. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s recent trip to Bangladesh is a good start, but a lot more is required.  The time and effort being expedited on Pakistan must be replicated and overshadowed by India’s effort on Bangladesh. The timing for such an endeavor couldn’t be better.


The author can be followed on Twitter @siddharth3


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