Friday, April 22, 2011

Delhi's Ties With Neighbours Fraught With Conflict

India’s relationships with its neighbours are fraught with conflict, save Bhutan and Maldives. Of late, the popular perception is that its relationship with Bangladesh is on an upswing. Last year, India signed the much- awaited agreement for transit of goods through Bangladesh to access its north-eastern states. Indian media reports hailed it as a momentous step in cementing India-Bangladesh relations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is also set to visit this eastern neighbour sometime this year. But no effort has been made to gauge the mood on the other side of the border.    Despite an informal gagging of any critical media by the ruling Awami League, some television talk shows and newspapers took the vox populi route to register how unpopular the agreement had been. The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), traditionally anti-Indian, lost no time in denouncing the deal. What is significant is that ministers took it seriously and worked hard to fend off the BNP’s opposition. Why should India worry about growing opposition to the deal when the Awami League is in a significant majority in Parliament and when most Indians feel the deal is as good for Bangladesh?         Transit deal favours India    Actually, the transit agreement is stellar for India. It is just what India needs to access its fractious North East, flanked by a belligerent China. The transit would save India crores of rupees in transporting goods that now take the circuitous route through the ‘chickens neck’ in the Siliguri corridor in West Bengal. For instance, Assam tea is now carried 1 ,380 km from Guwahati to the Kolkata port to be exported. If exported through Chittagong port in Bangladesh, the journey gets shortened to 530 km. But Bangladesh will not get access through India to reach Bhutan and Nepal through the treaty, as it has been asking for along time.    The $1 billion loan that India has promised Bangladesh to upgrade infrastructure is more to facilitate India’s own transportation into Bangladesh. For instance, the Bangladesh railway gauge is different from India’s; and Indian bogeys can’t move seamlessly into Bangladesh. A large portion of the loan will actually go towards that end and not to upgrade Bangladesh’s own rail network; it is a loan tied to Indian equipment and contractors.    A 3 ,783- km fence that India is building along its border with Bangladesh, ostensibly to keep out illegal immigrants, is adding to India’s unpopularity. To most Bangladeshis, the logic of being fenced in, while India has transit rights, is untenable. This view is gaining enough traction to make the Awami League deeply unpopular. Consequently, it could affect its ability to ‘deliver’ transit to India. The belligerence of India’ s Border Security Force (BSF) has also complicated things.         The China card    China, of course, is the other big worry. India’s perceived heavy- handedness could facilitate large Chinese investments in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka has Hambantota port, Pakistan has Gwadar port and the highways linking Sinchiang and the Northern Territories, Nepal has its Chinese government-built highways. Bangladesh is still to see such concerted Chinese activity though the Awaini League government in a rare show of dissent, perhaps to quell its image as being blatantly pro-India, has indicated it wants China to build a deep sea port and a road from Kunming via Myanmar into Bangladesh. And China is by no means uninterested. A smart Bangladesh government could leverage that and bargain with India, something Bangladesh is yet to do.    Despite everything, goodwill for India still remains high in Bangladesh given the history of its independence. Much is also made of an emotional give-and-take of a shared culture between West Bengal and Bangladesh. But Bangladeshis are fast beginning to realise that engaging with Kolkata is not the same as engaging with New Delhi. New Delhi should be ready with a strategy when this realisation morphs into policy in Bangladesh. India might actually gain from removing the fence because free movement of trade could well compensate for movement of free labour — the ostensible purpose of the fence to stop illegal migration.    But this is unlikely, given the political pressure to stop not just migration but the changing demographics of West Bengal and Assam with a growing share of Muslims in their populations. But if immigration policy is liberalised and migration legally controlled, Bangladeshi workers would spread across India, and the pressure of their presence in eastern India would ease.    The author is a London-based research scholar in political economy.