Sunday, September 4, 2011

Singh’s Major Foreign Policy Move

Burdened with a domestic crisis, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh embarks on his first foreign tour post- Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement: A revolution of sorts as most Indians saw it. 

Beginning next week, Singh travels to Bangladesh, India’s neighbour which has been making news in this part of the sub-continent. For Indians, Bangladesh was top of the mind some months ago. As India, perhaps, was for Bangladeshis too. The focal point was Prime Minister Singh who let slip uncharitable remarks about people in his immediate neighbourhoods.

On the sidelines of a conference with select editors, Singh had said that a substantial chunk of Bangladesh’s population were anti-Indian. On June 29, to be precise, which political analysts agree is a dark day in the history of Indo-Bangladesh relations. Though Singh’s remarks were off record, his office goofed up big time and posted them on the official website.

To quote Dr Manmohan Singh: “We must reckon that at least 25 percent of the population of Bangladesh swear by Jamiat-e-Islami and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI…So a political landscape in Bangladesh can change anytime. We do not know what these terrorist elements, who have a hold on the Jamaat-e-Islami elements in Bangladesh, can be up to.”

The following day there were red faces followed by a damage control exercise in which the dates of Singh’s forthcoming Bangladesh visit were hastily announced.

Three months down the line we are a couple of hours away from the historic visit. That Singh carries with him the baggage of a domestic movement which has dented his own image and the government’s credibility is another matter.

Officials, even if they try, cannot wish away the fact that the tag of honesty, integrity and credibility which were Singh’s USP, have been overshadowed by knee-jerk reactions and wrong decisions for which the blame is being largely apportioned to Singh and his team.

That the anti-corruption movement spilled onto the streets and stirred thinking Indians is a commentary on the gaps between the government’s words and actions.

Worse still, the wrong decisions in handling a sensitive yet volatile movement and sending a Gandhian to jail are things on the debit side of Singh’s balance sheet.

The silver lining, however, is the movement is over, Hazare is alive and a semblance of a compromise between the warring factions, namely the Indian government versus its people, has been hammered.
Till the Hazare movement, the Indian side had only one thing to worry about: how the people of Bangladesh would react to a Prime Minister who had made uncharitable remarks about them. On this count, there was limited anxiety given that both sides, namely the Indian and Bangladeshi governments, had postured to let bygones be bygones.

The calculation on this side of the border was that Singh’s demeanour would balm whatever wounds the damage-control exercise had failed to. Now they have another issue to worry about: the impact of Hazare movement on Singh’s international image.

Has it suffered in the same measure that it has domestically? This is the key question burdening officials’ minds as Singh lands on Bangladeshi soil.

Ostensibly no one is talking about it. Or even seeing it as a factor. For the record, there are issues, both political and trade related, which will dominate Singh’s visit. The fact that a battery of Chief Ministers of Indian states will accompany Singh during his Bangladesh tour, only underlines the importance of the visit.

Initially, it was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerji who was to be part of the PM’s entourage but closer to the visit, the number has reached nearly half a dozen CMs who will go Dhaka-calling. These include Chief Ministers of states of Paschimbanga, Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram. It is rare that the Indian PM has carried such a CM-heavy entourage.

That Singh’s visit is one of his biggest foreign policy moves in the region is a foregone conclusion. For starters, a comprehensive boundary agreement is on the anvil. The two countries have agreed to exchange most of the adverse possession areas. However, some disputes remain unresolved.

Highly placed sources have indicated that a unilateral grant of land to Bangladesh by India may not happen. Areas in Meghalaya were problematic as also some parts of Barak valley where an agreement on land exchange could hit a roadblock. 

So even while intentions and indications are positive, there could be some hitches. That notwithstanding, the mood is one of optimism where Bangladesh is likely to get a sweet deal, as it were.

On the trade front, which means textiles, India intends to give more than it will take. And this it will do at the cost of irking the domestic market. As of now, the government wants to give access of our markets to Bangladesh. This it wants to do without charging duties which it will do at the cost of the home traders.
Bangladesh wants India to remove 61 items from the list of protected goods India maintains under its free trade agreement with SAARC countries. India in turn hopes to have removed restrictions imposed by Dhaka on yarn and fabric.

Discordant notes on India bending over backwards for Bangladesh are being heard with textile producers representing to commerce and textiles ministry dissuading the Indian government not to give into pressure on grounds that it would jeopardize domestic business: “We would,” said an official of the Confederation of Indian Textile Industry, “be affected in a major way especially in lower end items.”

Bangladesh’s request list, he said, includes items with a major cost advantage, namely knitwear, jeans and men’s shirts.

Bilateral partnership apart, the Singh visit will also offer an opportunity to both countries to look at the macro picture of the eastern subcontinent and build prosperity linkages among their eastern neighbours.
While doing all this, there will be an attempt to have an inclusive policy: that is taking along all political opinion including the opposition’s. In this context, Singh’s proposed meeting with Bangladesh’s opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia is significant. 

The Singh visit, as analysts see it, will mark a distinct change in ties between the two countries.