Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Diplomatic Debacle And Lessons For Govt To Learn

The two-day visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, in all practical purposes, proved to be an anti-climax, anything but a diplomatic jackpot or a watershed in Bangladesh-India relations that the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, herself and her government have sought to hype it up to be in the past 20 months or so.

It was, in the end, the same old exercise of New Delhi providing Dhaka with precious little, coated in generally inconsequential promises and assurances.

Not only was there any agreement on the sharing of the Teesta water- although the Awami League-Jatiya Party government sought to make the people believe in recent times that it was a done deal- but also the longstanding bilateral irritants- e.g. killing on the border by the Border Security Force of India, huge imbalance in bilateral trade, tariff and non-tariff barrier to Bangladeshi products- were not even effectively addressed.

Indeed, the government may point to, for example, the protocols on land boundary demarcation, overland transit to and from Bangladesh and Nepal through  India as achievements, as well as India's decision to give duty-free access to 46 textile items from Bangladesh.

However, while the protocols are at their nascent stage, 400-plus Bangladeshi products still remain on India's negative list. Overall, what had been touted to be the crowning glory for the AL-JP government turned out to be what may be called a pie in the face.

The obvious question is: what now? The answer is: a serious soul-searching by the incumbents. First of all, they need to realise that, despite the clear evidence of the long-suspected reluctance, if not outright antipathy, on New Delhi's part to address Dhaka's legitimate concerns, Bangladesh's interest is irrevocably intertwined with India's for reasons both geographical and geopolitical.

Second, the government needs to realise that it needs to wrestle out its legitimate dues from India through effective diplomacy and substantive political negotiations. New Delhi's decision to pull out of the Teesta water-sharing agreement virtually at last moment, apparently in the face of stiff resistance from the Paschim Banga chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, was perhaps not quite unpredictable.

The last thing that the Manmohan Singh government would want is to cross the Trinamul Congress-led alliance in Pashchim Banga, of which the Congress Party is a partner. However, the episode did expose the inherent inadequacy of Bangladesh's diplomacy.

Even before the Hasina-Manmohan summit began in Dhaka, the Indian external affairs secretary declared in New Delhi that there would be no agreement on Teesta water sharing. The least that Bangladesh deserved from India was a prior notification about its decision to pull out of the agreement.

Third, the government, and perhaps the Prime Minister in particular, needs to realise that personal relations hardly matter in state-to-state dealings. Here, it is pertinent to recall that Sheikh Hasina went out of her way and bypassed all diplomatic norms and protocols, to congratulate Mamata Banerjee over telephone on her party's victory in the state assembly elections.

That said, it needs to be pointed out though that the postponement of the Teesta agreement provides a much-needed breathing space for the government and the people. In the government-generated frenzy over the agreement, the people have had hardly any way of knowing what was actually there in the agreement and thus difficult for them to arrive at any conclusion as to whether its postponement has been good or bad. It also gives the government the scope to take a pause and look back at what it has done wrong and what it needs to do right.

The Hasina government, it also needs to be pointed out, does deserve praise for not entertaining New Delhi's request for transit facilities over land. Transit, as many experts have pointed out, is a trump card for Bangladesh and the government should use it to the country's maximum benefit. In other words, Dhaka should only agree to provide India with transit facilities after the latter has effectively addressed all of its concerns.

In fact, the government should reconsider its decision to allow India the use of its Ashuganj-Akhaura rail route, which, notably, it has made unilaterally, without any public consultation or even a debate in parliament.

Be that as it may, the government needs to utilise the breathing space judiciously. It is time for the incumbents to reconsider and reformulate its India policy. In this regard, they need to take a leaf out of New Delhi's manual and strive for a national consensus through comprehensive consultation with experts, intelligentsia and, most importantly, the opposition political camps. It would not only make the incumbents stronger at the negotiation table but also help them secure national interest.

BY : Nurul Kabir.