Saturday, July 23, 2011

The reality behind the rhetoric
India obviously wants to use the transit facilities to integrate its insurgent north-eastern states with India proper.

The government apparently has great expectations from its current overtures to India, but dispassionate observers of Bangladesh-India relations, both in good times and bad, have reasons to be wary even in these best of times. The diplomatic chemistry, so to say, is excellent and much is being made of the imminent deal for 'transit, transhipment and regional connectivity.' This is to be effected through our territory, predominantly to help India transport its goods [arms not included, we are assured, though cynics swear it is likely to be a no-holds-barred situation, unofficially ] to and from its own states to the west, east and north of Bangladesh ----in other words a 'corridor', with all its latent political ramifications.(The Financial Express BD)

It is perhaps to remove such apprehensions that the Bangladesh Finance Minister thought it wise to tell the press, after a meeting with the visiting External Affairs Minister of India early this month (6th July), that the two countries have agreed to include Nepal and Bhutan in the 'transit and transhipment loop to ensure wider regional connectivity.' He appeared rather upbeat, adding, that by allowing transit to East Asian and other South Asian countries, Bangladesh was hoping to become a 'regional economic hub'.

But Bangladesh has miles to go before that. It would be too simplistic to presume that the transit issue has everything to do with economics and connectivity and nothing at all with the political reality on the ground. It is indeed full of potential but nonetheless fraught with too many complexities that need to be dealt with judiciously. The political parties in Bangladesh are sharply divided over it. [ But the Indian PM was wide off the mark when he said, in a tete-a-tete this month with newspaper editors in Delhi, that 25 per cent of Bangladeshis are Jamaat-i-Islami and anti-Indian with close ISI (Pakistani military intelligence) links! For the good man's information, this Islamic bogey never managed more than six per cent of the vote in any election in Bangladesh, despite its cosying up to the two main parties as and when found expedient.

One wonders whether the Indian PM is privy to some 'secret agenda' regarding Bangladesh which prompted him to add that 'the political landscape can change at any time.' What the plot and who the hatchers? Or does he simply mean Sheikh Hasina might not be re-elected next term, so better to take advantage of the Awami League's unquestioned majority? Let us hope it is just that and not some wild CIA-ISI-RAW-MOSSAD and what-not conspiracy to prey on us and our resources!

India obviously wants to use the transit facilities to integrate its insurgent north-eastern states with India proper. These states are power-starved and have little access to the outside world. With affordable transit rights through Bangladesh to the sea, these 'backward' states could be completely transformed in no time, while India at large would gain prodigiously from sure integration with Southeast Asian markets. Besides, better attention from New Delhi would be possible for the northeastern states with the proximity gained through this transit-concession from Bangladesh.

But would transit to India really be the big deal that it is being made out to be for this small country? In the short term bilateral phase, all trade would essentially involve Indian states alone ----- that is, India trading with India ---- with Bangladesh 'benefiting' from some service charges. If we are to really reap benefits worth the name, it is imperative that the details are worked out fairly and made available to the public. It would also make more sense to go multilateral rather than settle for a bilateral deal with India alone. [Shouldn't Bangladesh's sights be higher than that of a mere client/satellite/service agent vis-a-vis India? This loaded question comes not only from anti-Awami League elements but from some very proud Muktijoddhas also who resent New Delhi's neo-colonial mindset towards Dhaka.

So far India has 'approved' only eight of the 20 projects Bangladesh had submitted for implementation under the $1.0 billion Indian credit line. These include investment in energy and power, transport and industrial sectors. The Indian Prime Minister is scheduled to visit Bangladesh early September to sign several proposed deals. Other high level visits are also expected prior to Manmohan Singh's programme, which include the Home Minister P Chidambaram and the President of the Indian National Congress, Sonia Gandhi. Although the latter, who is also chairperson of the ruling national alliance, is coming to attend a conference on autism, her visit is bound to leave a good feeling about Indo-Bangla ties.

But experts watching developments in Bangladesh-India relations deplore the fact that there is virtually no evidence of quality research and cost-benefit analyses on how best to bargain for optimum benefits from Bangladesh's concession to India. Access to necessary information and data, pertaining to the structure and volume of trade between India's north-eastern states, and theirs with the main land, has also not been sought by, or made available to, Bangladesh for proper assessment of the potential. Be that as it may, the expert opinion is that Bangladesh must tread carefully and take pragmatic steps to sustain a win-win situation ---- if that is at all possible ----with the rising regional power.

Notwithstanding the likely positive impact on revenue ---- provided pricing is competently and fairly handled --- some observers think it would be wise not to concede full-scale transit right away. Given the fact that Bangladesh does not yet have the infrastructure to support heavy traffic, and that long-standing, often festering issues remain to be resolved, Bangladesh would be well advised to keep its wits around it.

Mark you, even a section of the Indian intelligentsia, such as Mihir Sharma of the Indian Express, admits that New Delhi's mindset with regard to Bangladesh, has been 'petty and shortsighted'. High time that changed. Says Sharma, 'India needs to go the extra mile, ensuring market access for Bangladesh, visibly demonstrating detente, and not just on our terms. India's Bangladesh policy must be liberated from those who imagine the country as attitudinally frozen in time, when ................... it's economy is booming; its human development indicators are better than India's ........'