Originally Published 2010-01-13 00:00:00 Published on Jan 13, 2010
To explain the causes of the present unsatisfactory situation many in India would argue that a self-absorbed India has neglected its neighbourhood
Don't count on emotion to boost ties with Dhaka
There is much self-questioning in India about our inability to forge strong and mutually responsive relationships with most of our neighbours. Our policy makers realise that India must have a peaceful and stable neighbourhood for its own good. If India is constantly distracted by problems around it, its ability to play a larger regional and international role is reduced. India cannot be one of the future poles in a multipolar world if its leadership role in its immediate periphery is not accepted, as is today the case.

To explain the causes of the present unsatisfactory situation many in India would argue that a self-absorbed India has neglected its neighbourhood. It has not been generous to its neighbours, as an incomparably larger country should. It should be willing to make unilateral gestures and not demand reciprocity from countries manifestly unequal in capacities. This would be particularly true for trade and economic exchanges, where India should have had the foresight to indissolubly tie the smaller economies to its much bigger market.

Others would argue that it is not axiomatic that the bigger and stronger country should feel obliged to make concessions, and that smaller countries are always right or reasonable in their demands. Reciprocity is the norm in the conduct of international relations, without it having to be symmetrical. Cognizance should be taken of the role of external powers to disturb India’s relations with its neighbours so that its regional and international clout is weakened, with China’s and Pakistan’s role in this regard being particularly deleterious. And why ignore the normal desire of a small country to balance the weight of a bigger neighbour by building ties with an external countervailing power, and maximizing its own advantage by playing the one against the other?

That India is domineering, interfering or insensitive, as some our neighbours propagate and some domestic circles endorse, can be disputed. India, in reality, has not exerted itself enough to shape its immediate environment to suit its political, security or economic needs. It is being bled by terrorism, the epicenter of which lies in Pakistan, but it has failed  to extract the requisite degree of cooperation against its networks from its other neighbours. India is unable to deal forcefully with the issue of large-scale illegal migration into the country. India has seen itself strategically neutralized, with nuclear and missile technology transferred to a country spawning religious extremism and state sponsored terrorism. 

India has not used all means at its disposal to bind its neighbours into its security fold. It    has been reluctant to even sell arms to them, leaving it to its adversaries to fill the vacuum. It does not seek to thrust democracy on them, even when genuine democracy there would be conducive to better relations with India. It has willingly done business with whatever regime is in power in neighbouring countries. It has abdicated, in the eyes of many, its primary responsibility for dealing with the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. It has not only tolerated the provocations of Nepal’s China policies, it facilitated the rise to power in Nepal of the Maoists whose leaders are currently maligning India irresponsibly.

In reality, India’s own internal weaknesses and lack of domestic consensus on sensitive issues prevent it from exerting its weight decisively in its neighbourhood. Its legal, political and administrative system hampers it from taking decisions clearly in its own interest. The neighbours know this from experience even as they are conscious of India’s size and power. India is loth to retaliate except in extreme circumstances. All in all, India is a non-threatening neighbour, with elastic red lines because of a disinclination to resort to intimidation or seek confrontation.

Sheikh Hasina’s current visit to India is situated in the context of the complexities outlined above and those specific to India-Bangladesh relations. It is not sufficiently appreciated that India has reacted with great maturity and restraint to coup d’etats, military rule and the rise of Islamist forces in Bangladesh, all severely detrimental to its own interests there. Conscious of its inability to control political developments there, besides the undesirability of doing so, it has tried to maintain friendly relations with Bangladesh whatever the complexion of the government there. Bangladesh has long denied the existence of any problem of illegal immigration into India and the presence of insurgents from north-east India on its soil. Instead of cooperating actively in fighting terrorism directed at India, elements there have connived with those from Pakistan to administer terrorist blows on India. It has stubbornly refused transit rights across Bangladesh territory to India’s north-east for its own geo-political ambitions. On the economic front, whatever be the deficiencies of India’s position, Bangladesh’s obstructive posture on energy cooperation and major private sector investments from India has been costly to the bilateral relationship. It has stood in the way of energy cooperation involving Myanmar too, which would have helped also in anchoring that country more in the subcontinent.

Can India and Sheikh Hasina change the paradigm of the bilateral relationship? Her government may feel improved India ties would help develop Bangladesh’s economy and shield the country from the destructive trends of previous years; India too would see advantage in bolstering the forces of democracy and secularism there in non-intrusive ways. Sheikh Hasina’s enjoys great goodwill in India, though her thin majority and the politics of Bangladesh when she was Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001 produced few  bilateral breakthroughs barring the Ganga Water Treaty. Although in December 2008 her party won decisively and the right wing Jamaat-e Islami yoked BNP was decimated, forces unfriendly to India have ruled Bangladesh for 30 of the 39 years of its independent existence, and these will act as constant points of pressure on the Awami League government historically seen as pro-India. The Bangladesh Prime Minister, warned by Begum Khalida Zia not to yield on the country’s “national interest”, has therefore to cover her flanks while seeking to consolidate India-Bangladesh ties on a more forward looking basis. Her government’s act in handing over Ulfa Chairman Rajkhowa to India was undoubtedly a laudable political departure from previous Bangladeshi policy.

The positive trends in Bangladesh should naturally be supported by us, integral to which would be ensuring that her visit to India is seen as a success domestically in Bangladesh.  Our decision to provide Bangladesh transit facilities to Nepal and Bhutan, without reciprocal facilities through its territory to our northeast, represents a major reversal of Indian policy in the expectation that Bangladesh will show “understanding and cooperation on our security and connectivity needs”. Unilateralism is being tried again as a policy approach, hopefully with returns this time at a later date. We have already announced that in areas of railway infrastructure, transportation, dredging, power grid interconnectivity and trade etc, India would extend Bangladesh a helping hand, which is all to the good.  Of the five agreements to be signed, the one on transfer of sentenced persons may give us custody of Ulfa leader Anup Chetia, provided he has not left Bangladesh already. With challenges ahead that need hard headed solutions, reviving “emotional links which remain disrupted since independence” can be dispensed from our agenda.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and can be contacted at [email protected]

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