By Syed Badrul Ahsan
The rise of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party to power in Delhi in May 2014 was occasion for a flurry of activities in Dhaka.
Just how ready Bangladesh’s political classes were to welcome the change in India was initially reflected by the congratulatory message sent to India’s new leader, even before the official results of the general election came in, by the chairperson of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and former prime minister Khaleda Zia. She was soon followed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
One does not require an extraordinary degree of wisdom to understand the cause behind this desire to extend the hand of cooperation to the new Indian leadership. For Khaleda Zia, the clear need was to convince the new leadership that for all the anti-India position her party had nurtured and practised over the years she was ready to go for a fresh beginning with Delhi. And for Sheikh Hasina, there was the unquestionable feeling that a Modi government needed to be convinced of Bangladesh’s sincerity in sustaining a cooperative framework of relations between the two countries against a background of everything that had not happened under the departing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
The Bangladesh government’s grievances were quite a few, and pretty significant too. The expectation that with Manmohan Singh in charge --- and with the Congress in Delhi and the Awami League in Dhaka sharing a common heritage of secular democratic politics in South Asia --- such outstanding issues as the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and the sharing of the Teesta waters would be resolved, were in the end to be belied. With West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee scuttling the possibility of a deal on the Teesta in 2011 even as Singh prepared to fly to Dhaka, the suspicion gained ground in Bangladesh that with the feisty Banerjee in charge in Kolkata and a steadily weakening Manmohan Singh in Delhi, there was little chance of a solution to the issue being reached any time soon. Moreover, the difficulties on Delhi’s part in ratifying the LBA were another assault on hopes of better neighbourly relations between the two nations. The absence of a Teesta deal and non-action on the LBA were embarrassing for Sheikh Hasina’s government. Her detractors were beginning to castigate her foreign policy vis-à-vis India as a failure.
The arrival of the BJP government in Delhi was therefore an opportunity which policy makers in Dhaka could not afford to not take advantage of. Such a belief obviously had its roots in the sheer majority the BJP had achieved in the elections, convincing politicians across the spectrum in Bangladesh that the new Indian leadership would play hardball in the region through a reinvention of foreign policy under Modi. Dhaka was, again, convinced that with Delhi finally led by a strong government it made sense for Bangladesh to persuade India of the need for quick action on the core issues which had quite undermined ties between the two countries in the recent past.
That said, it is not hard to suppose that the emergence of Narendra Modi as India’s new leader was, in large measure, cause for worry among Bangladesh’s political circles given the BJP’s image as a Hindu nationalist organisation. The conclusion to be drawn is that politicians in Dhaka were agreed on the need to engage the new leaders in Delhi through diplomacy rather than place focus on the change in India’s internal political dynamics brought about by the defeat of the Congress. Diplomacy, so the reasoning went, was of the essence.
For his part, Modi played his cards well. His invitation to the heads of government of all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations outside India to be part of the inaugural ceremonies of his government in Delhi was stunning as well as refreshing. Suddenly, in Dhaka especially, the feeling of Narendra Modi being a disturbing symbol of Hindutva politics gave way to the perception that he was beginning to look like a statesman intent on casting India in new light. And indeed Modi did not disappoint Bangladeshis.
At his meetings with the Bangladesh prime minister on the sidelines of such events as the SAARC summit in Kathmandu and the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he reassured Sheikh Hasina on the LBA and Teesta. The two issues, he informed her, would be resolved soon. Bangladeshi officials could hardly contain their glee. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Dhaka was seen as adding substance to the new foreign policy perspectives of the BJP administration in Delhi.
The year 2014, considered from a diversity of perceptions, has been a time of positive note in Indo-Bangladesh diplomacy. The LBA and Teesta apart, forceful Indian action in such significant areas as the Burdwan blast involving fugitive Bangladeshi Islamist elements holed up in West Bengal has been welcomed in Dhaka. With Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence officials exchanging information on the presence of unsavoury elements in one another’s territory, relations between the two countries have taken on added substance.
And with both Modi and Hasina enjoying comfortable majorities in Delhi and Dhaka, it is only natural to expect that over the next few years, or in the forthcoming two years, the pattern of bilateral cooperation set in motion since Modi took over as India’s prime minister should logically be one of increasingly closer linkages. The Awami League government has in the past six years gone out on a limb to crack down on Indian extremist elements operating from Bangladesh territory against the Indian authorities.
Reciprocity from the Indian side, particularly in apprehending and handing over to Dhaka Bangladeshi criminal elements currently fugitive in India, will in very large measure contribute to a strengthening of links between the two countries. Regular and closer coordination between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Bangladesh’s Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) will surely ensure a safer frontier for people on both sides of it. Dhaka’s need for enhanced trade with India is another priority which Bangladesh expects will be considered with understanding in Delhi.
Bangladesh, at this point in its history, is in dire need of a consolidation of democracy for its people. The government of India, through its cooperative endeavours with the government of Bangladesh, will be helping that process along. Indian democracy is constantly cited in Bangladesh as a model of modern politics. Delhi’s sustained interest in the growth of democratic pluralism in Dhaka, therefore, can only redound to the mutual benefit of the two nations.
(Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer, Dhaka. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)