Friday, September 9, 2011

Manmohan’s Visit: Diplomatic Failure

It needs no elaboration that the two-day visit of the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh is a diplomatic disappointment on the part of our Government in general, and the foreign minister as well as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s foreign affairs adviser Gauhar Rizvi in particular. This major failure of the government has frustrated the people. Even a few hours prior to Dr. Singh’s arrival in Dhaka foreign minister Dipu Moni loudly affirmed about the certainty of inking two treaties. 

In mature diplomacy, some things are better left unsaid. It is implied that no careful homework was done by our foreign office mandarins. During the past 19 months ceaseless babble of voices prattling on about the enormous economic benefits and other merits of granting transit or transhipment to India – which some senior economists of this country see mainly as a corridor from western India to north-eastern ‘Seven Sisters’ of India as it does not link the countries of Southeast Asia – have proved to be an exercise in futility.  

Erudite and suave, Dr. Manmohan Singh is universally praised as “India’s best prime minister since Nehru”. He told the Indian newsmen that the West Bengal government had assented to water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh before backing out — and thus forcing India to back out of its commitments. Dr. Singh said he had consulted with Mamata Banerjee for over a month on the details of the treaty. It is enigmatic and incomprehensible, how a provincial head of government can defy and disregard the federal head of the Indian Union who had pledged to sign the Teesta water sharing deal.   

As the wails of millions of the underprivileged cultivators and fishermen, who desperately depend on the waters of the Teesta, remained unheard, the intent to conserve the Sunderbans is of little consequence. Though it is being said that Dhaka has refrained from signing the transit treaty, considerable measures have been stated. Item 41 of the 65-point joint statement says, the Prime Ministers directed that necessary formalities for the use of Chittagong and Mongla seaports for movement of goods to and from India through water, rail and road should be completed urgently. 

Our growing bilateral trade deficit with India has risen to $2,910 million in FY 2010. Dr. Manmohan Singh announced the decision of his Government to remove all 46 textile lines which are of interest to Bangladesh from India’s Negative List for LDCs under the provisions of SAFTA, thereby reducing the applicable duty rate to zero with immediate effect. But the real impediments are India’s non-tariff or para-tariff barriers. Bangladesh’s battery manufacturer Rahimafrooz faced much hurdles including a case in India’s High Court while exporting its products. Finally in January 2004 the company had to approach the WTO system to resolve the dispute it had with its powerful neighbour. 

It was a happy augury that this year there were joint celebrations of Poet Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary in Bangladesh and India. It has been agreed that the 90th anniversary of the publication of the epoch-making poem Bidrohi by Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam would be jointly celebrated. Bangladesh Prime Minister’s intention to set up a ‘Bangladesh Bhaban’ at Shantiniketan as a resource centre is welcome news to build a bridge of culture.

After cloud sunshine may come if the government cares to adopt practical and pragmatic steps to revamp its India policy after meticulous study. With this end in view it should work hard for national consensus through wide-ranging discussions with our own retired diplomats, water experts, seasoned scholars and Opposition politicians. This will strengthen the incumbents’ capacity to negotiate effectively and secure national interest. As regards the Teesta water sharing, the Government must make its demands specific ensuring ‘guarantee clause’ for lean season, as the people do not want to see another faulty Ganges treaty consequent upon which people and cattle cross the Padma on foot at the Hardinge Bridge point in the dry season when we need water most for sheer survival.

A big friendly neighbour is a great blessing. There is no doubt that as a neighbour Bangladesh certainly and definitely cherishes true friendly relations with India—-which helped her defeat the brutal occupation army of Pakistan—-based on understanding and cooperation for mutual benefit.