It sometimes feels as if the Indian media works overtime to suggest that India’s regional policy begins and ends with Pakistan. This is generally attributed to the North Indian/Punjabi obsession with Pakistan, a criticism that two prime ministers have had to contend with – Inder Kumar Gujral and current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Indeed, their policies haven’t only been dubbed Pakistan-centric, but also unnecessarily soft toward their neighbour.
But a more careful examination of the United Progressive Alliance government’s Bangladesh policy shows that while Pakistan may figure high on the list of priorities, to assume that other countries are ignored would be incorrect. The clearest example of this is Singh’s upcoming Bangladesh visit, which is scheduled for September 6 to 7. The visit comes soon after that of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and is expected to give a further fillip to the existing bonhomie between the two nations.
On the agenda are expected to be security issues, border disputes, increasing connectivity, trade and water. Among the border issues to be discussed is a proposal for giving 24 hour access to the inhabitants of Bangladesh’s Dahagram and Angarpota enclaves. The Bangladeshi government has reportedly been advised by Singh’s national security advisor to take sufficient steps to prepare for such a scheme. The fate of about 111 Indian and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves, where citizens live virtually stateless, are also to be discussed.
To improve connectivity, there will be talks on a transit route between the mountainous northeastern states and the rest of India via Bangladesh. Aside from this, the use of Bangladeshi seaports and river ports will also be discussed, as will how India would benefit from using the Bangladeshi ports at Chittagong and Mongla.
Interestingly, Singh will be accompanied by the chief ministers of the five northeastern states bordering Bangladesh: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Meghalaya’s Mukul Sangma, Tripura’s Manik Sarkar, Assam’s Tarun Gogoi, and Mizoram’s Lal Thanhawla. They have all been duly consulted on key issues and briefed on the likely outcome of Singh’s visit.
This is undoubtedly a welcome move. For too long, Delhi’s foreign policy has been unimaginative and top down, and proper consideration hasn’t been given to the strong desire among border provinces for better ties with their neighbours.
But while progress on the eastern border has been encouraging, it must also be hoped that some of the lessons that have been learned can be replicated on the western border. For a start, the prime minister, who is keen for a better relationship with Pakistan, would do well to actually pay a visit to Pakistan – no Indian prime minister has visited the country since 2004. If India’s policy was truly Pakistan-centric, there would surely have been at least been one visit by Singh.
And, unlike the typical official visits by Indian delegations, the prime minister could consider visiting towns outside Islamabad and Lahore, such as his own ancestral village, which is waiting with open arms to welcome its prodigal son. This would send the right signals to Pakistan, similar to what occurred with Vajpayee’s 1999 Lahore sojourn.
On the subject of the joint celebration of Rabindra Nath Tagore’s 150th anniversary, nothing should stop these festivities, nor the honouring of individuals respected on both sides of the Wagah, such as Bhagat Singh, at the government level. After all, many individuals are revered in both India and Pakistan and both governments could consider mutually recognizing such individuals each year.
On the issue of trade, while measures were discussed to increase cross-Line of Control trade during the foreign ministerial talks last month, and across the Wagah border during the commerce secretary-level talks in April, it’s time to give trade and commerce a genuine push.
While the dynamics of people-to-people contacts and trade are different on India’s western border, there’s significant scope for doing more to ensure that train services and buses travelling between the two Punjabs, Kashmirs and Rajasthan-Sind achieve their objective of greater interaction between the citizens of both countries.
The best way of achieving this would be for the prime minister to ensure that his delegation includes the chief ministers of Punjab, Rajasthan and Kashmir, and also to ensure that this isn’t just a one-off, but part of broader progress on interactions between these provinces. Including state governments in the dialogue with Pakistan may also help establish common ground over such contentious issues as water, as both Punjabs face similar problems. Such dialogue might also help undermine the propaganda that plagues both sides.
While Singh wouldn’t be signing any agreements on a trip to Pakistan, he could push the envelope further by making key declarations over the liberalising of the visa regime, for example.
This isn’t to say that there won’t be constraints placed on his actions – the fact is that there are still gaping differences between the two countries over terrorism and territorial disputes. Unlike on India’s eastern border, where consensus on core disputes has laid the foundations for greater cooperation, on the Pakistan side, bold steps are still needed to pave the way for greater trust and understanding.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi