Indian Decade

An Inclusive Bangladesh Policy

India’s closer relationship with Bangladesh is welcome. But it needs to be about more than the Hasina administration.

I recently had an opportunity to visit Dhaka for a two day economic summit. The presence of such a large number of Indian firms in the city, including HDFC Bank, ICICI and Barista Lavazza was testament to the improvement in ties between the two nations in recent years.

And it’s not just about business – India is a favoured destination for Bangladeshis seeking an education, and India’s cultural influence is seen in the popularity of Bollywood movies and Hindi serials. Indeed, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that an outsider to the sub-continent would find it difficult to distinguish between Calcutta and Dhaka these days.

It’s clear that Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s initiatives in promoting a harmonious relationship between the two countries have played a crucial role in the development of ties. But for Delhi’s part, there are some serious issues that Indian policy makers need to address going forward.

First, some among India’s opposition and the media are concerned over what they say is a lack of transparency in the agreements between the two governments. And, just as India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Partyrecently complained it hadn’t been kept in the loop with regard to the land swap agreement with Bangladesh, members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) say that they have been left out of agreements with India.

These reservations were expressed by a number of journalists and academics at a seminar I also attended – and they weren’t only voiced by those considered hawkish on foreign policy. The Indian government would therefore do well to be a little more pro-active in addressing these concerns and making clear that India is keen to cement ties with Bangladesh as a whole, not just the Hasina administration.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

This last point is all the more important for two reasons. For a start, Hasina’s overtures towards India are being criticised by many who aren’t actually hostile to India. Second, Hasina has been happy to throw around accusations that opposition leader Khaleda Zia is pro-Pakistan. India should show that it’s above this kind of slugfest and not allow the opposition to feel they need to embrace Pakistan.

But there’s another element to this important bilateral relationship – India must do more to show that ties aren’t only based on security interests. After all, if Bangladesh is providing a transit to India, then the latter should seriously address at least some of the grievances of sections of civil society and its citizenry, grievances that have been creating tensions between both countries. This especially needs to be done in areas like water sharing and on issues such as the recent land swap.

Another point to remember is the potential role that could be played by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who can help cement the relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka. Of course, she will need to be a little more restrained in her public posturing. But any differences between Calcutta and the central government over Bangladesh should be tackled internally, as public differences over policy don’t send the right signals. After all, while the dynamics of the Calcutta-Dhaka relationship are complicated, there’s plenty that binds the two together.

India is currently led by one of its most successful foreign policy premiers in Manmohan Singh, but New Delhi needs to be mindful of some of the legitimate sensitivities of Bangladesh. It also needs to send a clear message that while India gives primary importance to its own interests as far as its Bangladesh policy is concerned, it is still keen that the relationship should benefit both countries.

Clearly, each country has internal issues to address, and neither can choose the government it works with. But a well-crafted Bangladesh policy will not only strengthen India’s relationship with Dhaka, but will benefit a region that’s yearning for political stability and economic prosperity.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.