All state visits are about give and take. But there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm in Dhaka about Bangladesh’s interest in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ongoing visit to India. In New Delhi, on the other hand, there is super enthusiasm. It is not hard for any unbiased onlooker to assess who is expecting to give less and take more from this visit. Who will actually get to give less and take more is another matter.
There are many deals, investments, credit lines, memorandums of understanding and joint statements on the plate. But what Dhaka wants to take from Delhi is not on the menu. There will be no comprehensive Teesta water sharing agreement signing during this visit.
Before Sheikh Hasina arrived from Dhaka on April 7, Delhi put up what can only be called a high-octane courtship. In the last one month itself, Speaker of Lok Sabha and Chief of Army were sent to Dhaka.
This courtship has a context.
A ‘special relationship’
Any bilateral relationship between two sovereign entities is based purely on respective self-interest. New Delhi might want to package the relationship in other terms for public relation purposes.
Whatever illusions that Delhi might harbour or promote for public consumption about its role in 1971, the contemporary relevant truth remains that Bangladeshi citizens are being gunned down by Indian Border Security Forces at a higher rate than most borders of the world, including the Indo-Pakistan border.
Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, regularly use the spectre of swarms of “iilegal Bangladeshis” infiltrating Indian territory as a thinly veiled code word for the growing percentage of Muslims in its eastern border states as a tool for consolidating Hindu votes. An “illegal Bangladeshi” in its idea is a cattle-smuggling, fast-breeding, potential Islamic terrorist (or terrorism confederate) with an aim to create a Muslim majority zone spanning from West Bengal to Assam.
Dhaka takes all this with little murmur because of its geo-political and economic limitations, though opposition forces in Dhaka would want to attribute it to the “special relationship” that the ruling Awami League shares with Delhi.
It is true that Awami League is not hostile to Delhi. It operates under the practical limitations of running the government of a country that is landlocked and now literally fenced off with barbed-wire from most sides by India and also has a huge negative balance of trade with India, which includes many essential goods.
This is not an ideal situation for any sovereign entity and thus it is in the interest of that entity to diversify its relations vis-à-vis other sovereign entities. This becomes all the more imperative especially when a regional big power unofficially considers Bangladesh within its geo-strategic backyard. Thus Dhaka has stepped up its relations with Beijing with the latter offering larger monetary investment in infrastructure and other aspects of mutual interest that Delhi simply does not have the economic power to match even remotely.
The so-called Sino-Indian rivalry is a competition only from a Delhi viewpoint. The Beijing view on this echoes a favourite line of mine by Coco Chanel – “I don’t care what you think of me. I don’t think of you at all.”
The inability of Delhi in matching China is stark in Bengal. In Bangladesh, China has lined up huge investments around the Chittagong port. In West Bengal, Delhi has been plotting to scuttle the Tajpur port initiative of the West Bengal government by threatening to pull out from Delhi’s already promised Sagar port.
While Delhi continues to give a cold shoulder to Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative that could immensely benefit West Bengal, Delhi has not offered any kind of a tangible alternative to Kolkata for this denial of opportunity. Bangladesh, therefore, will benefit from the initiative, thus intertwining its economy closely with that of China and gain from the consequent benefits of such cooperation with the biggest goods manufacturing factory of the world.
The early signs of this growing relationship have alarmed Delhi. Recently, Bangladesh Navy procured its first two submarines from China. This is especially interesting since Bangladesh has no naval border dispute with either India or Myanmar. Thus Delhi’s defence analysis circles have been watching this development with concern given that they consider the whole of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal India’s unofficial fief. With the submarine move, Bangladesh, the sovereign bigger half of Bengal, has rightfully staked claim to its due in the Bay of Bengal theatre as a sovereign nation state. This irks Delhi. The China connection in the submarine procurement makes Delhi even more uncomfortable.
As a response to these developments, we see Delhi’s insistence on a defence pact of sorts with Dhaka, something that has been wildly unpopular in Bangladesh ever since the idea was floated in the context of this visit. It is unlikely that Delhi will get from Dhaka exactly what it wants. It will have to be happy with a face-saver. Dhaka is slowly learning to play to its advantage of Delhi’s insecurity vis-à-vis Beijing’s presence in South Asia. Dhaka is driven by self-interest. That’s what governments of sovereign nations ought to do.
‘Forces of extremism’
Bangladesh, written off as a “basket case” around its moment of birth, has one of the fastest growing economies of the world and outstrips India in quite a few major social indicators in spite of having a lower per capita income. In the South Asian arena, it shows how the cohesion and confidence of a sovereign state built around linguistic nationalism can be a game changer. Nothing brings that out more starkly than the divergent post-1971 fortunes of the two Bengals.
Both India and Bangladesh have religious majoritarian forces on the prowl. The government of Bangladesh has been fighting such forces with varied degrees of effectiveness, ranging from hanging major war criminals of 1971, eliminating Islamic terrorist cells that now seem to appear everywhere from nowhere to the reprehensible false encounter killings of individuals with the convenient post-facto tag of “terrorist”. In India, religious majoritarian forces have captured power in the Union government and more recently, Uttar Pradesh. The differences could not have been starker. In such a scenario, when Indian government spokespeople talk about cooperation with Bangladesh government to combat forces of extremism, one is legitimately left wondering what that sentence might mean.
For the last few years, Dhaka has delivered much of what Delhi has wanted. It has handed over top United Liberation Front of Assam leaders, made Bangladesh’s soil inhospitable for pro-independence insurgent groups, especially those of Assam, and provided transit for Indian goods through its territory and so on.
Bangladesh’s gripe is that Delhi has not delivered on the number one item on Dhaka’s wishlist. That is the Teesta river water sharing deal. This international river flows from West Bengal to Bangladesh. While Delhi gains in terms of interests related to its Union-list subjects, there is nothing but loss for West Bengal in such a deal. If Delhi was genuinely interested in this deal, it would have by now worked out a compensation package for West Bengal. It hasn’t. Instead, it has tried to paint Mamata Banerjee as the spoiler.
As far as Dhaka is concerned, the reasons, internal to India, are not its concern. The deliverables are and they have not arrived. Beijing cannot offer a Teesta deal to Dhaka. Delhi can. The present ruling party in Dhaka can then sell the deal as a success to the people of Bangladesh ahead of the 2018 election there.
Thus if Delhi wants to match or even outdo Beijing in the game of wooing Dhaka, it must offer Teesta to Dhaka. To offer Teesta to Dhaka, Delhi has to take Teesta from Kolkata. Kolkata naturally will not agree unless it is duly compensated. That is only fair. Thus, what Delhi can offer Dhaka that Beijing cannot match depends on what Delhi can offer Kolkata.
The ball really is in Delhi’s court.