Sunday, August 28, 2011

Terms Of Connectivity : The Longer-Term View

Connectivity is a very important factor in human affairs. At all levels of life connectivity plays a central role in defining the quality of life. But connectivity comes in many forms and in many dimensions. Ipso facto connectivity does not confer much benefit unless connectivity is designed to achieve desired objectives.

That means connectivity has to be purposeful. It has to be beneficial to the seekers of connectivity. Whether it is the individual, or group of individuals or society or a nation; connectivity is very relevant and significant. 

Apart from the nature of connectivity the level and intensity of connectivity is generally determined by a conscious decision to engage a corresponding partner in the network of connectivity.

In an abstract concept connectivity with the Creator is the ultimate connectivity of human existence. But then many do not seem to be very much persuaded by the importance of that kind of spiritual objectives.

Life seems to be more real and more earnest at the mundane level where loaves and fishes are more keenly sought after and demands of flesh and blood get the better of connectivity. Spiritual connectivity is consigned to the forgotten zone of life.

Primacy of connectivity in material life somehow overtakes the inclinations for intellectual and human connectivity.

The type of connectivity that tends to enrich the total quality of life does not seem to make much appeal to political actors. Opportunities for material advantage and substantial financial gains attract the attention of political players, more than anything else.

These gains are measured more in personal terms. Gains of the political party concerned also count at the secondary level. The advantages that may or may not accrue to the country and the society is often of little concern, if any.

Connectivity in the transportation sector has been stridently pursued by India over decades now. It is natural for India to do that. It is in the national interest of India to enhance connectivity with its seven states in the north-east of Bangladesh. In this context of India’s national interest connectivity with Bangladesh is relevant and, in fact, a priority issue for India.

The one billion US dollar credit line offered by India to Bangladesh acquires its economic and political logic in this perspective. Credit means, Bangladesh will ultimately foot the bills for India’s connectivity with its own states separated by Bangladesh.

Indian goods, Indian services including advisors, consultants, contractors will naturally quality for funding from this tied credit line, consequently Indian business and industry will reap the initial harvest from this much publicized generous credit line.  Indian trucks, buses, train wagons and shipping vessels will use the roads, railway lines and shipping facilities built and upgraded inside Bangladesh with Indian credit. That is the more durable aspect of the transportation connectivity: physical infrastructure system built within this framework.
We Bangladeshis would not like to witness a transportation connectivity network built within Bangladesh with the money of Bangladeshi taxpayers (i.e. the final repayment of Indian credit) which will be for all practical purposes (at least that is how it is being widely perceived in Bangladesh toady) by India, of India and for India. India has done the homework.

Obviously, Bangladesh has not as it appears from very vague public statements emanating. Such decisions in Bangladesh are made on impulse by some leaders who feel beholden to India for one reason or the other. There are also some civil society institutions and individuals in Bangladesh who are more Indians than the Indians themselves.

These are the people loudly trumpeting the bounties of connectivity without being able to quantify the specific benefits, both economic and non-economic, that Bangladesh stands to gain from this deal.

India-centric transport connectivity will primarily serve larger interests of India, Bangladesh would have been able to advance its own interests if this connectivity framework was perceived in a wider perspective. Nepal and Bhutan depend entirely on India’s goodwill for connectivity with Bangladesh.

The supporters of India’s connectivity framework involving Bangladesh seem to be making a big deal about connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan. Apart from a very small volume of goods likely to be covered by such connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan, one needs to keep in mind India can any time throttle or thwart the flow of goods in more ways than one.

Connectivity with Myanmar, Thailand and China should have been on the cards so that Bangladesh does not become totally dependent on India for connectivity in the transportation sector. It is very much in our larger national interest to keep our connectivity options open and wide. Any form of dependency is against our national interest.

Ever since the independence of Bangladesh, India has not given much practical evidence of reliability as a neighbour. The agreements signed between Bangabandhu and Indian Prime Minister India Gandhi are yet to be implemented by India. India’s myopic vision and assertion of narrow self-interest stymied the flowering of the concept of “Bondhu Rastra” (friendly nation) evolved during our war of liberation in 1971.

Bangladesh and India had a common cause in 1971. Both of us needed to humble Punjab dominated Pakistan. Together we did. The spirit of “Bondhu Rastra” seems to have withered away with the surrender of the Pakistani Army in Dhaka to the Indian Army. Bangladesh and India relations somehow got lost in the wasteland of India’s hegemonistic aspirations and paranoid pursuit of India’s narrow self-interests at the cost of Bangladesh.

National disunity and political disorientation in Bangladesh seriously sapped the national power and capacity of Bangladesh to engage India in a meaningful process of mutually beneficial bilateral relations. India clearly signified its preference to deal more positively with a particular political party in Bangladesh. Bangladesh-divide-and-rule policy of British colonial exploiters has been reincarnated in the form of divide and dominate propensity. Bangladesh’s relations with India consequently continue to suffer in all their aspects.

The euphoria of connectivity with India may be transient, if the other political party does not see it to be in the national interest of Bangladesh. In our political culture such major diplomatic decisions are taken by keeping the opposition party in total darkness. So for India is concerned, Bangladesh policy of India is based on a broad consensus between the major political parties. A change in the political power structure in Delhi will not mean much of a change as for as Bangladesh is concerned.

Our institutional weaknesses- both political and bureaucratic – are major hurdles in the proper implementation of bilateral agreements with India and for that matter with any other country. Our major political parties do not work together in articulating Bangladesh’s policies towards India. Still worse are the line ministries associated with negotiations and implementation of bilateral agreements with India. The process of elbowing out culminates in excluding the concerned ministries.  The Foreign Ministry is routinely excluded and sidelined by other ministries. There is no designated national focal point. In India nothing happens in terms of diplomatic relations without the Indian Ministry of External Affairs being a key player in the process. Sadly the story in Bangladesh is very different.

Reservations, doubts and even serious concerns will capture the public mind if the current trend of keeping the people in the dark about the terms on the basis of which the connectivity deal is being concluded with India continues. People could be keen to know how this sectoral connectivity will impinge on the holistic connectivity aspects across the spectrum of connectivity in political, cultural, media, trade and economic relations as well.

Connectivity in one sector cannot be evaluated in total exclusion of other areas that concern the national interests of Bangladesh. If the people at large are not very convinced that the current connectivity deals are based on terms that adequately  protect the interests of Bangladesh, the life or validity of the deal may be defined by the outcome of the next general elections due in about two years from now.

The people of Bangladesh need to be taken into confidence. Without the broad support of the people for the terms and scope of connectivity the deal may end up being seriously time bound and regime bound. 

By - Mufleh Osmany.