Friday, February 18, 2005

BANGLADESH: Message from New Delhi

+ So who is right? I think that there is right and wrong on both sides of the argument. But the point is that it doesn't really matter who is right and who is wrong -- the question is how best to respond. Now we can continue to take a hard line in negotiations, but I think that it is fairly apparent now that this will get us precisely nowhere. India needs us far less than we need India, has far greater leverage than us, and has now indicated that it is running out of patience and is prepared to use its leverage to get its way. Nor am I suggesting, however, that we bend over backwards to accommodate all of India's demands. That would be neither prudent nor politic -- we have our own interests that we must also pay attention to and it is imperative that any Bangladeshi government stand firm in the national interest. But surely the best solution would be to continue to defend our own national self-interest strongly, but to temper the more confrontational and less defensible elements of our India policy. +

18/02/2005

Message from New Delhi
Zafar Sobhan

Make no mistake about it. The recent policy address given by Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on February 14 was a message aimed principally at Bangladesh. Indeed, one could scarcely ask for a more lucid or straightforward enunciation of priorities and policies from the Indian side.

This is not to say that the entire message was a coded communication with Dhaka, but there can be little doubt that large chunks of the policy address were intended squarely for the ears of the Bangladesh government. One merely needs to read between the lines of Mr. Saran's statement to understand what the real message was and who it was primarily meant for.

Pakistan has long been a problem for India, (though, ironically, as relations between India and Bangladesh have soured, relations between India and Pakistan have been on the mend in recent years). But at least India and Pakistan both know where the other stands. The relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi is far more complex and uncertain.

Mr. Saran's pointed statement indicates that New Delhi is concerned that Bangladesh might be heading down the path of direct diplomatic confrontation with India, and that the Bangladesh government had better correct its course sooner rather than later, or be prepared for the consequences.

Let us look at some of the language used in the speech.

The reference to "some members of Saarc actively seek[ing] association with countries outside the region . . . in a barely disguised effort to counterbalance India" is clearly a reference to the Bangladesh government's recent overtures to China, Japan, the EU and Asean, among others.

Mr. Saran made a number of pointed references to India's irritation with member countries who perceive Saarc "as a vehicle primarily to countervail India or to seek to limit its room for manoeuvre" and who are "seen to be patently hostile to India or motivated by a desire to contain India."

He means Dhaka -- and it is clear that these efforts are not appreciated by New Delhi.

Specifically who Mr. Saran was referring to (not that there was much doubt) becomes clear in the next paragraph, when he refers directly to the severed transportation arteries in the region.

The speech became more closely tailored to its intended audience in Dhaka when Mr. Saran mentions that "some neighbours have taken advantage of India's strengths and are reaping both economic and political benefits as a result. Others are not." To ram this point home, in the next paragraph he refers to the free trade agreements signed with Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan.

The crux of the speech comes in the final few paragraphs where Mr. Saran reiterates India's long-standing complaint about "use of their territories for cross-border terrorism and hostile activity against Indian" and states that "we need to create a positive and constructive environment by avoiding hostile propaganda and intemperate statements" ending with the final admonition that "India wishes to reassure its neighbours that it respects their independence and sovereignty. What it regards as unhelpful is the display of narrow nationalism based on hostility towards India."

The message has been delivered loud and clear.

Indeed, the tenor of the speech was such that it made me wonder whether India's withdrawal from the 13th Saarc summit that was scheduled to be held in Dhaka on February 6-7 was part of the message.

Perhaps the withdrawal from the summit was a straight left intended to set us up and Mr. Saran's policy address was a thunderbolt right cross to the jaw of the Bangladesh government.

Perhaps the thinking in New Delhi is that if this doesn't make them sit up and take notice, then nothing will.

Taken together with India's summit snub -- I cannot help but suspect that we have been treated to a pretty good explication of India's thinking with respect to its relations within the region, and specifically with respect to its relations with Bangladesh.

One thing we can't say any more is that we are being ignored. We have always complained in the past that India was much more important to us than we were to them, but the bilateral relationship with Bangladesh is clearly now at the top on the Indian foreign policy agenda.

India is now clearly extremely agitated with respect to the relationship.

So the question for us is what should our response be now that India has drawn a line in the sand and laid down its marker.

The other unsubtle message to be found in the body of Mr. Saran's speech was that from now on we do things India's way or not at all. The postponement of the summit has already shown us where the balance of power lies. The message is that we continue to be confrontational with India at our peril.

Much depends on to what extent one accepts India's characterization of the Bangladeshi mind-set and intransigence as the reason for the cooling of relations.

Notably absent from Mr. Saran's address was any concession that India itself may be in any way to blame for the problems in the relationship or that India is willing to accommodate the needs of other countries in the same way as it wishes to be accommodated.

The counter-argument to Mr. Saran is that his speech is in fact a perfect illustration of what is wrong with the bilateral relationship, in that it demonstrates how India is utterly indifferent to the needs of any other country, refuses to see that other countries may also have cause for complaint, and forthrightly sets out India's "my way or the highway" approach to diplomacy.

So who is right? I think that there is right and wrong on both sides of the argument. But the point is that it doesn't really matter who is right and who is wrong -- the question is how best to respond.

Now we can continue to take a hard line in negotiations, but I think that it is fairly apparent now that this will get us precisely nowhere. India needs us far less than we need India, has far greater leverage than us, and has now indicated that it is running out of patience and is prepared to use its leverage to get its way.

Nor am I suggesting, however, that we bend over backwards to accommodate all of India's demands. That would be neither prudent nor politic -- we have our own interests that we must also pay attention to and it is imperative that any Bangladeshi government stand firm in the national interest.

But surely the best solution would be to continue to defend our own national self-interest strongly, but to temper the more confrontational and less defensible elements of our India policy.

What does this mean in practice? It means taking the transshipment issue seriously and not being merely obstructionist. It means cracking down on insurgents who might be receiving shelter and support on our side of the border. To say nothing of pursuing our own insurgents and terrorists.

The thing is that much of this would not only not be detrimental to our own national interest but would actually be to our benefit as well.

It must go both ways, however. There are all kinds of issues from trade to water-sharing to border demarcation where we would like a better deal from the Indians. But we have to be prepared to deal -- not to merely obstruct -- and of late it often seems that we are more interested in simple obstruction than with striking a deal. Such an approach ultimately hurts us far more than it does India.

There are many who say the problem lies with India and its Big Brotherly attitude, and there is much truth to this. India is far from blameless when it comes to the deterioration of the bilateral relationship with Bangladesh, and must be willing to sit down at the table and sincerely address Bangladesh's legitimate concerns. It is not enough to take pot-shots at us -- India must look into its own house as well.

But so must we. Let's for once in our life get serious. Indian intransigence is not the only problem and we have not been blameless in our dealings with India either. There can be no doubt that we have legitimate concerns on issues such as trade and water and that in negotiation India has often been the intractable one. But the time has come for a smarter India policy than the policy of confrontation and obstruction that we have been pursuing for the past few years.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.