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!

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