Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's diplomatic faux pas on June 29, when he told editors that at least 25 percent of Bangladeshis are anti-Indian, was in stark contrast to the reality of warming ties between the two nations over the past couple of years. India has, for example, provided Bangladesh a soft loan worth a billion dollars, while the latter reciprocated by providing India transit facilities to the northeast.
Yet while there’s undoubtedly been real tenacity on the part of Singh and Bangladeshi leader Sheikh Hasina in pushing the Indo-Bangladesh relationship to new heights, there are some genuine problems with the way both sides have been doing so.
For a start, Hasina is known to be close to the Gandhi family in India. While there’s nothing wrong with having personal ties with a political family, the entire Indo-Bangladesh relationship appears now to have been reduced to discussions about individual personalities and family members. This reality is underscored by the fact that Congress President Sonia Gandhi's proposed visit to Dhaka this month for a conference on women's leadership is receiving far more interest than Singh’s planned September trip.
Meanwhile, Hasina's daughter has invited Gandhi’s daughter Priyanka Vadra to accompany her mother. The Indian Express reports that according to sources, the attempt from Dhaka, ‘is to carry forward the links between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi to the next generation. In this context, a citation from Bangladesh is being planned for Indira Gandhi for her key role in its formation.’
With this in mind, the Congress Party should make abundantly clear that it’s dealing with Sheikh Hasina purely in her capacity as prime minister, one who is positively inclined towards India. In addition, Manmohan Singh should do more to exert his authority, rather than letting those around him take credit for the improvement in ties. After all, it’s Singh who has brought about a change in mind set in dealing with India's neighbours, and who has shown a willingness to engage with other countries, irrespective of the individuals involved. The relationship with Pakistan is a good example – Singh has had good ties not only with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but also his civilian successors to the Pakistani leadership, President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
Ultimately, Indian foreign policy must become less dependent on the relationship of the Nehru-Gandhi's with other first families on the sub-continent. The former might have freed India from the clutches of the British, but it has been Prime Ministers IK Gujral, AB Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh who have exhibited exceptional vision in dealing with India's neighbourhood, sending a clear message that good relations with the neighbours aren’t a luxury, but a necessity.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation