On numerous occasions, India has failed to seize opportunities to mend relations with its neighbors, largely due to the inability of the political leadership to stand up to domestic political pressure. One clear example was India’s inability to convert the personal rapport between Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
More recently, Bangladeshi Premier Sheikh Hasina has been attempting to cement a cordial relationship with India, and has at times annoyed hardliners in her own country who accuse her of selling out to Indian demands. However, India hasn’t been able to reciprocate. Indeed, there was an embarrassing moment for New Delhi when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to accompany Singh on his Bangladesh visit last year.
As a consequence of these failures by the government, Indian non-state actors are beginning to play a growing role in forging ties with the outside world. India’s economic prowess and increasing cultural reach have enhanced the confidence of its business community. In the context of India’s neighborhood relations, it isn’t only business groups, NGOs and peace groups that have made valuable contributions toward more harmonious relations. In 2010, the Times Group began “Aman Ki Asha” – a collaborative project between the two largest newspapers in India and Pakistan, The Times of India and Jang respectively.
“Aman Ki Asha” was conceived more as a means of complementing the dialogue begun by the Indian government in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. But it should be said that the project has played a role in facilitating dialogue between politicians and economists from both sides.
More recently, the Times Group, in collaboration with Bangladesh daily Pratham Alo, has launched “Maitree Bandhan,” which means “lasting bond of friendship,” to promote friendly ties with Bangladesh. The project aims to enhance person-to-person contacts and ultimately business ties between both countries. It has started with a cultural festival that features well-known Bangladeshi and Indian artists sharing a stage in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. Like Aman Ki Asha, it will facilitate meetings between business leaders from both countries. Maitree Bandhan will also attempt to develop opportunities such as student exchange programs and strategic summits to allow greater interaction between the two countries.
This project is especially important because it has been launched at a time when the bilateral relationship between the two countries is threatening to lose the momentum it had last year. Many Bangladeshis believe that while Bangladesh has gone out of its way to build a cordial relationship with India, the latter hasn’t shown similar enthusiasm. In addition, there’s a feeling among many Bangladeshis that while Bollywood movies are popular in Bangladesh, India doesn’t give similar opportunities to Bangladeshi artists and films.
The growing realization in India, at least outside the government, is that engagement shouldn’t be merely state or personality driven. India’s government should take note of this, and ease visa restrictions on citizens from neighboring countries. It’s time to showcase India’s soft power, rather than relying on the External Affairs Ministry.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation.