Bangladesh has real hope in Modi — for peace, prosperity and neighborly relations
When former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concluded his tour of Bangladesh in September 2011, this paper headlined its lead story: “No Teesta, no transit.” This time, too, there is nothing on Teesta, yet we have agreed on all forms of transit in the name of connectivity. This outcome is not evidence of the persuasive power of the Indian PM Narendra Modi but more an expression of our faith in him to deliver on all the promises that his predecessor so miserably failed to keep. To be fair to Singh, he did most of the preparatory work.
Water sharing remains, and will remain, a very serious concern for Bangladesh to which the Indian response remains a promise and a promise only. All Modi could say was: “I am confident that with the support of the state governments in India, we can reach a fair solution on Teesta and Feni rivers.” The Indian PM’s conditional assurance became all the more striking to the people of Bangladesh as not a word came from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose original refusal to be part of the Modi delegation and her subsequent change of mind raised serious hopes that, if not a deal, at least some gesture firmer than before would be made on this life and death issue for India’s lower riparian neighbor. The ever-talkative Mamata Banerjee stunned us all by hardly uttering a word on an issue she knew very well that we, her host, were very anxious to hear about, raising the question as to why? In fact, her silence and body language were more telling: It looked like a deliberate and unambiguous expression of her continued refusal to give our demand a fair consideration.
Bangladesh’s welcome to the Indian PM was practically with no holds barred. The government left no stone unturned. All political parties literally fell head over heels to meet Modi. BNP and Jamaat went to the public to say how they were never anti-Indian in their policies. The media went all out with full, uncritical and extensive coverage of the Indian prime minister’s maiden visit. In fact, this paper itself went much further than it did ever before.
All of this is both due to our emotional nature and an intuitive belief that PM Modi will deliver where others have failed.
This belief is based on two things — the delivery of the LBA and, more crucially and impressively, the manner in which he was able to bring about the crucial constitutional amendment without a single vote of dissent. Given the varied nature of the Indian parliament and the extremely divergent and sometimes contradictory regional interests that plague its legislative process, a unanimous vote was nothing short of a miracle made possible by a determined leader committed to giving Bangladesh-India relations a jump-start.
An added reason for our allout welcome is his stated policy of “neighborhood first” which is music to our ears, but a music we have heard before. No Indian prime minister ever said anything other than being very attentive to her neighbors. But unfortunately, “neighbors” usually meant Pakistan and occasionally China, lead- ing this writer to comment sometime back, in utter frustration, that “India has only two neighbors — Pakistan and China — and the rest of us are mere geographic entities …” Extremely suspicious and wary of Pakistan, India, mistakenly, spent most of its energy trying to “mend fences” with it at the cost of the rest of the neighbors. It was, and continues to be, India’s fundamental policy flaw. Though successive Indian governments repeated ad nauseam as to how concerned they were about India’s small neighbors, very few practical steps were taken in this regard.
All this will be changed by Prime Minister Modi we hope, and we, in Bangladesh, must encourage him to do so, and do so fast. If PM Modi is sincere about his “neighborhood first” policy and if we can seriously encourage India to shift from its Pakistan “obsession,” then Bangladesh will naturally emerge as India’s most important neigh- bor, keeping China aside for the moment.
If that happens — and we don’t see why not — then the sky is the limit for our bilateral cooperation.
It has always been our belief that India’s growth is an opportunity for Bangladesh and not a threat as propounded by some within us, frozen in a pathological anti- Indianism. We also believe that given a very wellcalibrated regional cooperation, Bangladesh- India relations can be exemplary for others. The crucial phrase here is “well- calibrated,” meaning it must clearly envision, at an early phase, to tilt towards Bangladesh. This temporary “positive discrimination” will ultimately benefit India as our per capita income will grow, along with it our buying capacity, which in turn will make Bangladesh a bigger and more attractive market for her goods and services.
Crucial to all this is massive rise in our global trade in general and bilateral trade in particular, for which we need FDI from all over the world, especially from India. The two mega power projects are a good start though its details need to be thoroughly negotiated. And central to rising trade is the development of infrastructure which lies at the heart of connectivity, for which a significant number of MoUs have been signed by the two countries.
It is given that connectivity without a serious policy guideline of “benefit to Bangladesh” will mainly help India supply its goods into Bangladesh and through Bangladesh to India’s northeastern states. It is also contended that India’s economy being bigger and stronger and having economies of scale will obviously be poised to benefit quicker and faster. Herein lies the case for “positive discrimination” and the true test of Modi’s “neighborhood first” policy. Will it be a policy to exploit the neighborhood first or one to help them scale new heights of economic prosperity is the question. We believe that PM Modi’s position is the latter.
The truly “game- changing” process in Bangladesh-India bilateral relations that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set in motion during her historic 2010 trip to New Delhi, which triggered a “paradigm shift” in India, now appears to being genuinely responded to. Sheikh Hasina has met every possible demand from India — from removing all security threats to giving transit and from allowing the use of Chittagong and Mongla ports to the movement of Indian goods through Bangladesh to northeastern states. There is very little left for us to give.
It is now India’s time to reciprocate. It is now Narendra Modi’s time to reciprocate. The “leap of faith” that Sheikh Hasina took in 2010 without getting much in return should now be returned many times over in another “leap of faith” by her Indian counterpart.
That is Bangladesh’s expectation from the new, visionary, pathbreaking, “thinking out of the box” Indian leader who seems to mesmerize people wherever he goes, as he did in his parting speech at the BICC.
What a speech — down-to-earth, disarmingly simple and yet so full of charm, humor, new thoughts and, of course, new hope!