Sunday, September 4, 2011

Deals With India : Govt’s Go-Alone Attitude Dangerous

WITH the visit of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, just round the corner (he is scheduled to arrive in Dhaka on September 6), it increasingly seems that the Awami League-Jatiya Party government’s groundwork for what it so enthusiastically dubs as a landmark in the Bangladesh-India relations are neither adequate, let alone foolproof, nor above and beyond question or controversy.

Of course, the government has undertaken elaborate steps with regard to security and protocol for the Indian prime minister and his entourage; however, what appears to be missing is exhaustive analysis and constructive debate on the issues that Dhaka is likely to enter into agreements with New Delhi. The proposed government plan to allow India transit for trade with third countries through the Chittagong and Mongla seaports is a case in point. According to a report front-paged in New Age on August 30, officials in relevant ministries seem to believe that the prime minister’s economic and international affairs advisers, who they say are steering the move after India expressed its intent to sign a new agreement to use the Chittagong and Mongla seaports for its trade with other countries, are giving misinterpretations of the agreements and protocols signed between the two countries in 1972 and 1980.

The government has hardly made any effort to initiate any open consultation with the intelligentsia or within the political class, let alone a public debate, on the agreements that it plans to sign with its Indian counterpart during Manmohan Singh’s September 6-7 visit. In fact, the incumbents have kept the content and intent veiled from the public, for reasons only they seem to know. Thus far, save the occasional, and vague, statements by the prime minister’s economic and international advisers, made mostly to the media, print and electronic, the government seems to have kept the relevant issues under wraps. Suffice it to say, there are questions about the modalities of the transit/transhipment agreement that should have been thoroughly discussed and debated. For example, the government has not made it clear that if India is after all allowed to use the Chittagong and Mongla seaports for trade with other countries, under what legal framework such allowance will be provided. Nor has it clarified what will be the arbitration/resolution mechanism in case of any future dispute. Similarly, in case of agreements on sharing of common rivers, it is not clear whether or not a guarantee clause will be incorporated.

India’s preparations, on the other hand, seem to have been as elaborate as can be. The composition of the Indian prime minister’s provides an ample pointer in this regard. The chief ministers of five Indian states bordering Bangladesh, in other words the states that will be in the thick of actions once the agreements on transit or transhipment or however one would like to put it are signed and implemented, are scheduled to accompany Manmohan Singh, as will a number of experts on the transit- or transhipment-related issues. Notably, not all the chief ministers belong to the ruling United Progressive Alliance led by Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party. The inclusion of experts suggests that New Delhi has not only covered the political front but the technical ground as well. In short, the Congress-led government seems to have taken adequate preparation—political, technical, etc—to ensure that India makes most of its prime minister’s upcoming visit.

As indicated before, the same cannot be said about the government of Sheikh Hasina. Its attitude and actions have thus far been non-transparent and decidedly undemocratic, which risks making the agreements with India the source of lasting controversy and contention. Most importantly, its refusal to make its preparation for the upcoming summit with India may very well leave Bangladesh in a no-win situation and the country and the people may have to pay the price for such eventuality in years to come.