THERE are those times when a leader tells his counterpart to tear down a wall and the thing comes tumbling down. Then there are those times when countries accept that the physical barriers between them will only grow stronger even while their leaders insist that economic integration and great feelings of friendship are booming.
Ahead of a visit to Bangladesh next week by India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, officials from both sides have been acting as if economic ties—stunted by decades of mistrust and neglect—will soon be soaring, such as to match political ties of almost indecent buoyancy. That's the official story.
An improvement can be guaranteed when you start out with next to nothing. Despite the two countries’ shared history and geography, India is not even among Bangladesh’s top-ten foreign investors. India may have close political ties with its eastern neighbour. But China wins the economic competition in Bangladesh hands down. China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner, as well as its primary supplier of military equipment. And it seems that not a month goes by without Chinese companies winning contracts to build power stations, roads, telecoms and other infrastructure in Bangladesh.
Mr Singh is to visit next week, and his Congress-party boss, Sonia Gandhi, visited last month, but China’s leader in waiting, Xi Jinping, visited Bangladesh more than a year ago. For Bangladesh this is not a bad spot to be in. Its government is expected to exploit the country’s strategically important location on the Bay of Bengal to extract concessions on trade and aid from both India and China.
India has already sanctioned a $1 billion loan to Bangladesh (its largest-ever to a foreign country) and held out the promise of electricity exports and trade concessions. Billions of dollars worth of goods are smuggled across the 4,100km (2,500-mile) Indo-Bangladesh border every year. Making that trade legal would make the official figures look more respectable. This week India’s home minister, P. Chidambaram, laid the foundation stone for one of seven planned trading posts along the border. If this sudden burst of enthusiasm for economic integration catches on, Bangladeshis may soon have to come up with a new nickname for India’s Border Security Force. These days the BSF is insulted as the Border Smuggling Force.
Yet for now, every one of Bangladesh’s poorest 32 districts (out of 64) has something odd in common: each shares a border with India.
Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is not asking Mr Singh to dismantle the iron fence that runs along the world’s fifth-longest international border. It cost India billions of dollars to build and enforce and still defines its wonky border (also one of the world’s bloodiest). Instead Sheikh Hasina appears to be urging India not to let unresolved problems stand in the way of things that can be done. She has already refuted one notion that held sway in Bangladesh, by proving that being openly pro-Indian does not always mean losing elections.
The enthusiasm generated by the flying 30-hour visit that Mr Singh has scheduled for September 6th and 7th is not entirely misplaced. He is expected to sign a deal on sharing water from the Teesta river. And he will be the first Congress party prime minister to visit Bangladesh since 1972. An agreement of friendship and co-operation was signed in Dhaka in the year after the new country’s independence from Pakistan, by the then-prime minister Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Since then, a raft of bilateral issues has been festering. Time has added a few more items to the list of unresolved issues. They include trade, transit, terrorism and disputes over water and territory. Midwife to Bangladesh’s birth forty years ago, India nowadays tends to be regarded in the public mind as a wicked, overbearing stepmother.
Is it the perceived threat of cross-border terrorism, security concerns in India’s north-east or China’s increasing influence that is renewing India’s interest in its neighbour to the east? Bangladeshis have a deep-rooted suspicion that India still dreams of regional hegemony.
An inadvertent posting in June on Mr Singh’s official website, disclosing remarks the prime minister made about Bangladesh to newspaper editors in Delhi, has not helped. Mr Singh told reporters that “we must reckon that at least 25% of the population of Bangladesh swears by the Jamiat-ul-Islami [sic] and they are very anti-Indian and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI,” that is, Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s military spooks. (The text has since been replaced with a sanitised version that does not mention Bangladesh).
The fact that some have portrayed Mr Singh’s visit as the start of something new reflects the low expectations against which any possible improvement in bilateral ties must be measured. Consider the basic nature of what India and Bangladesh hope to achieve. Both countries are attempting to establish ties that West and East Germany were able to take for granted even at the height of the Cold War: an undisputed international border; only infrequent border killings; and a well-established transit system for trains, goods and passengers—income from which helped the poorer country to pay its bills.
India is likely to make concessions as long as its security concerns are not compromised. One area where progress is likely to be made is the planned swapping of parcels of territory and an agreement to define 6.5km of disputed border. It would be a success for India, which could have an undisputed international border on its eastern front by the stroke of a pen by next week.