15 September 2004
Inside Bangladesh III
Lurking fear about larger neighbour
By Siddharth Varadarajan
Dhaka: In June, when the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Morshed Khan,
visited New Delhi to greet the incoming Manmohan Singh Government, he
said bilateral relations were on the upswing and that he and his
Indian counterpart, Natwar Singh, had agreed not to speak to each
other "through the media" but through the telephone. Last week,
however, Mr. Khan appeared to disregard this sensible agreement in
vigorously criticising the Indian Government before a conference room
full of journalists. His remarks on trade, water-sharing and terrorism
— which were replete with bitterness, anger and sarcasm — prompted a
retired Bangladeshi diplomat to describe the speech as
"thought-provoking, with the emphasis on the latter word."
It is not clear what the minister thought the consequences of his
outburst would be but the next day's headlines — "Morshed blasts Delhi
for `unfair trade'" — must surely not have come as a surprise to him.
Given the prickliness of South Block, he must also have known that his
broadside would generate a tough response. Coming on the eve of
bilateral secretary-level talks between the respective water resources
and Home Ministries — where a number of key issues and proposals are
to be discussed — Mr. Khan's words led one Indian official to express
pessimism about the meetings' outcome. "At this point, I think all
bets are off".
Why did Mr. Khan say what he did? What has changed since the apparent
bonhomie of June, and have bilateral ties now hit rock bottom?
Rivalry is the reason
As with most things in Bangladesh, the answer lies in the rivalry
between Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Awami League leader Sheikh
Hasina. Begum Khaleda had been keen for the Indian Prime Minsiter to
visit Dhaka and had sent Mr. Khan in June for that reason. Not only
did the sought-after visit not materialise, the UPA Government further
upset the Bangladesh Prime Minister by receiving Sheikh Hasina in
Delhi in July days before her own meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh at the BIMST-EC summit in Bangkok in early August. Finally, Mr.
Singh's decision to speak only to Ms. Hasina after the August 21
grenade attack — and not Begum Khaleda — greatly upset the PM and her
advisors. Indian officials say Mr. Singh called Ms. Hasina 45 minutes
after learning of the attack on her life and that Begum Khaleda was
not telephoned because "she was not the target". They also say that
many other world leaders including Jack Straw and Donald McKinnon too
spoke only to the Awami leader. However, given the sensitivities, New
Delhi certainly erred in not speaking to the Bangladesh PM about what
was after all an attack on the very existence of democracy in her
country. Colin Powell did not make this mistake.
But if domestic politics is giving an unjustified rhetorical edge to
Dhaka's policy towards India, the bulk of what Mr. Khan actually said
— particularly his fears about India's river-linking project and the
difficulty of Bangladeshi goods accessing Indian markets — resonates
deeply with what most people here, cutting across party lines, feel
about their larger neighbour.
Indeed, the Indian side has to guard against over-reacting to what the
Bangladeshi Minister said. Certainly, the veiled threat to get the
Tata group to cancel its $2 billion investment plans in Bangladesh
would be a case of cutting one's nose to spite one's face. Indian
officials who are quick to write off Bangladeshis as "anti-Indian"
should realise there is tremendous public support inside the country
for the Tata project. "It is truly a win-win situation for both us",
says Rehman Sobhan, economist.
He argues that if India were unilaterally to allow free trade from
Bangladesh, FDI inflows would increase — and not just from India —
leading to improved production structures, better wages and greater
employment. There would also be another spill-over benefit: As work
prospects in Bangladesh improve, the flow of job-seekers to India
would slow down, perhaps removing another irritant in bilateral
FTA holds the key
Indian officials say New Delhi is not averse to granting free access
to Bangladeshi products but wants to embed this within the framework
of a free trade agreement. An FTA in which Indian concessions are
frontloaded while the Bangladeshis do not have to open up fully for,
say, 10-15 years, might prove mutually acceptable. In exchange, India
would have the right to expect Dhaka to soften its irrational
opposition to the transhipment of goods to the north-east through its