P.K.BALACHANDRAN | 25 OCTOBER, 2017
COLOMBO: With the Bangladeshi parliamentary elections due in January 2019, neighboring India is preparing to face any change that the elections might bring about in Dhaka.
While being closely tied to the ruling Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina for historical reasons, India is also trying to establish links with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia which is expected to contest the elections and not boycott them as it did in 2014.
As the Late Brajesh Mishra (Premier A.B.Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor) once said after a standoff with the then Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina: “India does not put all its eggs in one basket.” What Mishra meant was that Sheikh Hasina could not take India for granted as India could reach out to her opponents.
The just concluded visit of India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Dhaka for the Indo-Bangla Joint Consultative Commission meeting had some interesting items in the itinerary, namely, meetings with the opposition stalwart Begum Khaleda Zia leader of the BNP, and Begum Raushen Ershad of the Jatiya Party founded by former President Zia ur Rahman. The Jatiya Party, is a small party, but in the absence of the BNP, is the official opposition in parliament.
The significance of the meetings with the opposition leaders could be seen in the publicity they got in the official twitter handle of the Spokesman of the Indian External Affairs Ministry, Raveesh Kumar. The BNP too attached great importance to the meeting. Accompanying Begum Khaleda were five of her top aides, sources in Dhaka said.
Swaraj’s visit was officially for the JCC meeting, but her mission was to strengthen ties with the State of Bangladesh irrespective of who or which party is in power there.
It is also said that India had conveyed to Begum Khaleda Zia its desire that the BNP contests the next election as the country and region needs a democratic, parliamentary opposition to keep a check on the regime and prevent militancy from taking over the opposition space.
At present, there are only 56 opposition members in a parliament of 350. And 150 of the seats won by the ruling coalition were uncontested because of the BNP’s boycott.
India is also keen that if a powerful opposition party is in parliament ,there will be less danger of elements in it seeking extra-constitutional methods to influence government or grab power. The danger of a lurch towards Islamic extremism and deals with Islamic extremist parties will also be minimized if the BNP is in parliament and aspiring for legitimate power.
The BNP ,which had been in power before, knows what it takes to be in power and interact with India and other countries near and far in a globalized world.
That said, India is trying its best to keep Bangladesh within its sphere of influence while China is trying to draw it into its fold. Though India cannot match China’s investment of US$ 13.6 billion, and its pledge to give $ 24.5 billion, India has notched up its Line of Credit by US$ 4.5 billion to total US$ 8 billion now.
India is also trying to catch up with Chinese military aid to Bangladesh, beginning with a small commitment of US$ 500 million.
A factor which is not publicized much (to the detriment of India) is that the Indian Lines of Credit are much cheaper than those of China, which charges anything from 4 to 5% interest. In some cases (as in Sri Lanka) it could be as high as 6 to 8 %.
What India is trying to do to overcome its financial mismatch with China is to point out that India is Bangladesh’s closest neighbor with borders in the latter’s West, North and East. The two countries face the common issue of managing a porous and long border. There is the problem of sharing the waters of a major river like Teesta, which plays a great part in the agrarian economy of Bangladesh.
India is desperately in need of Bangladesh’s cooperation in stemming the tide of cross border Islamic terrorism. New Delhi is grateful to Sheikh Hasina for her cooperation in preventing Islamic militants from crossing into India and for her zero tolerance of Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh itself.
Dhaka appreciates India’s overall friendly attitude, but is very disappointed that New Delhi has been unbending on the sharing of the waters of Teesta. The irritant is likely to remain for a long time unless West Bengal relents.
The massive influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar into Bangladesh was the latest issue to upset Indo-Bangla ties. To the utter dismay of Bangladesh, India sided with the Aung San Suu Kyi government in Myanmar, endorsing its military action against the Rohingyas Muslims in Rakhine State in the North West of the country.
Till date, India holds the view that the violence in Rakhine State had been triggered by the Pakistan and Saudi Arabia influenced and funded militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Sensing dismay in Bangladesh, New Delhi tried to assuage feelings there, by rushing relief material to the 400,000 Rohingyas who had fled to Bangladesh. While accepting the aid, Bangladesh asked India to use its influence on Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back.
But till date, India has not moved in the matter, given Myanmar’s obduracy based on the theory that the Rohingyas are not Myanmarese at all, but are immigrants from Bangladesh.
India has taken the position that all it can do is to help develop Rakhine State so that the Rohingyas will have livelihood avenues. This is what Sushma Swaraj said in Dhaka during the latest visit.
“India is deeply concerned at the spate of violence in Rakhine State of Myanmar. We’ve urged that the situation be handled with restraint, keeping in mind the welfare of the population.”
“In our view, the only long-term solution to the situation in Rakhine State is rapid socio-economic and infrastructure development that would have a positive impact on all the communities living in the State,” Swaraj said.
India, she said, is committed to providing financial and technical assistance for identified projects to be taken in Rakhine in conjunction with the local authorities. India also supports the implementation of the recommendations contained in the Kofi Annan led Special Advisory Commission report on Rakhine State, Swaraj added.
Bangladesh First Among Neighbors
Bangladesh can count on India’s goodwill, Swaraj said.
“Our foreign policy follows neighborhood first approach. Neighbor's first, but Bangladesh before all," she said in Hindi.
Promising to “sincerely” resolve “irritants” between Bangladesh and India, Swaraj said that both countries are working to resolve these issues in the spirit of “friendly relations and with right intention”.
Though she did not specify the nature of the issues, she apparently hinted at the question of sharing water of common rivers, particularly of the Teesta, which has been pending since September 2011.
While in Dhaka ,the Indian Foreign Minister formally inaugurated 15 small scale projects to help communities at the grassroots level.