Vol. 5 Num 652 Wed. March 29, 2006  

Bottom Line
PM's Visit to New Delhi

A new beginning in bilateral relations?

From media reports, it appears Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's three-day visit to India has gone well. The mistrust and misunderstanding between the two neighbours that were built since October 2001 after BNP-led coalition government coming to power seems to have cleared up and the ice in relations has melted for the benefit of both countries.

It was not expected that one high-level visit would remove all the bilateral issues from the table but the important fact is that the leaders appeared to have understood each other's position against the background of current geo-political scenario and took some steps to eliminate the cloud hovering over their bilateral relations.

The statements of Finance Ministers of both countries are indicative of "wind of change" in their future relations. Bangladesh Finance Minister's words have been pragmatic and forward-looking. Bangladesh Finance Minister reportedly said that " if European countries could come together for economic integration after fighting among themselves for centuries, why can't we? After all we have not fought for centuries" and it went to the heart of the matter.

What he meant was that in the days of globalisation, when Bangladesh is at the throes of integrating with global and regional economy, she needs to come up with a sensible framework of economic relations with India.

India's Finance Minister touched the moot point when he reportedly said that if India as a regional power could not be sensitive to the needs of its small neighbours, then what was the point of claiming to be a regional power?

What he meant was that power brings certain responsibilities and one of the responsibilities lies in maintaining good and friendly relations with its neighbours. He also talked about the core message of "Gujral doctrine" in which India may give concessions to its small neighbours as much as possible without asking reciprocity.

In the past, the bureaucrats in New Delhi always asked for "tooth for a tooth and eye for an eye". That was why no small neighbour was happy with India. India's generosity was in short supply and was only keen to advance its own interests without considering its impact on its neighbours.

The visit seems to have underlined the realization that Bangladesh and India should live in stable relations and be friendly to each other. A stable and prosperous Bangladesh is an asset to India. Not only its market expands in Bangladesh but also with economic prosperity allegation of unaunthorised migration of labour to India will disappear. It is a win-win situation for both.

India has realised that trade deficit needs to be addressed and the revised trade agreement aims at expanding bilateral trade and economic relations on the basis of equality and mutual benefits by facilitation, expansion and diversification of trade.

What is significant in the trade agreement is the inclusion of agreeing of both parties to make mutually-beneficial arrangements for the use of their waterways, roads and railways for commerce between the two countries and more importantly provision for passage of goods between places in one country through the territory of the other. Transportation bottlenecks have hampered growth of commerce between the two countries. Once transportation facility is agreed upon including transit rights, commercial relations will immediately get a huge boost.

Both the Prime Ministers agreed to operate the Sealdah-Joydevpur train link and decided to hold high-level meetings over disputes on security and water more regularly.

On Tata's investment in Bangladesh, the latter assured that the matter had been under serious examination by all the agencies of Bangladesh and twenty- three agreements are required to be signed. One tricky issue is that while fixing price of gas to Tata, the domestic investors should not feel let down.

Other concerns
Bangladesh's other concerns seem to have been addressed. Bangladesh has been concerned with the river-linking project of India. The project aims at inter-linking trans-boundary Himalayan rivers to create "a new water grid", comprising 19 diversions, 16 reservoirs and 19 water transfer links. India assured Bangladesh that there was no proposal to bring in rivers originating in the Himalayas under it and nothing will be done to hurt Bangladesh.

On the construction of Tipaimukh dam, India stated that the project was for storing water to generate electricity and not to divert water from the Barak river which feeds Bangladesh rivers, such as Kushiara, Surma and Meghna. However more details need to be provided to Bangladesh to ally its concern on the storage of water at the upstream. Bangladesh, being a lower riparian, is naturally anxious to know the layout of the project that has not reportedly been furnished to Bangladesh.

India has raised the sensitive issue of existence of northeast insurgent camps within Bangladesh and it appears that since Bangladesh itself has been a victim of terrorism, if India provides a list of location of camps, Bangladesh will certainly look into it. At the same time Bangladesh has raised the issue of some alleged anti-Bangladeshi groups operating from India's territory and India assured to crack down against them.

It seems from the media report that regional cooperation in energy has not been addressed. Both Bangladesh and India are hungry for energy for economic activities and the issue of regional grid needs to be raised, if not at a bilateral meeting, at the SAARC level.

It appears that a new beginning has dawned on bilateral relations. We all hope that the goodwill generated through the visit will provide a momentum in which negotiators will not be imprisoned in their old mind-set in advancing their relations. An open mind is imperative to bring about a change in their attitude towards each other.

Another fact is that the Prime Ministers or Presidents or Monarchs of neighbouring countries in South Asia ought to meet more frequently as European leaders do. Russia's President Putin met Chinese President Hu at an interval of several months.

Finally, although the Prime Minister was received ceremoniously with full protocol at the Rastrapati Bhavan, it would have been a nice gesture if India's Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh would have received the Prime Minister at the airport, breaking the normal protocol which he did for President Bush. In 1977, Prime Minister Morarji Desai received President Ziaur Rahman at the airport. For a Prime Minister of a neighbouring country, breaking protocol would have been appropriate and desirable.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.