The recent visit to India by the leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia has become a much talked about subject in the political arena of both Bangladesh and India. Given the general public perception of BNP being "anti Indian" and Awami League being "pro Indian," Khaleda Zia's conciliatory tone and friendly overtures towards India have been looked upon with both positivism and scepticism by different quarters.
This article will look into how the existing corrosive political culture in Bangladesh and, in contrast, the matured behaviour of Indian politicians have worked to the advantage of India at the expense of Bangladesh due to failure of our leaders to rise to the occasion on issues of vital national interest.
Khaleda Zia's itinerary, the people she met, and statements that were made in India speak of the fundamental difference in how party politics and national interest are played out in these two countries. The lunch that Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh hosted for Khaleda Zia was attended by BJP stalwart L.K. Advani. Both Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition BJP, and BJP President Nitin Gadkari held meetings with Khaleda Zia. During the meeting with Khaleda Zia, Dr. Singh said that India was trying to achieve political consensus on both Ganges water and stopping cross-border killings by BSF. He assured that Bangladesh would be informed and consulted on Tipaimukh. Interestingly, in all these three issues, BJP President Gadkari extended support to Khaleda Zia's concern.
Neither was Dr. Singh dubbed as "weak and meek" by the opposition BJP for his conciliatory stance towards Bangladesh, nor was Gadkari termed as "traitor" or accused of "selling out India to Bangladesh" by the ruling Congress for expressing support to the legitimate concerns of Bangladesh. No matter how ideologically divided Congress and BJP may be, on issues of national interests they discuss, consult, and positively respond to each other. Now let's look what has been happening at our end.
Our minister for environment and forest accused Khaleda Zia of having links with Shiv Sena and said: "We have learned that Khaleda Zia had a secret meeting with the Shiv Sena. If the Shiv Sena unleashes repressions on the Indian Muslims it will stir an anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh, which can be capitalised on during next general elections." The degree of irresponsibility of a minister in making such reckless comments is mind boggling. Even if we were to assume that the statement is true, is it something that should be publicly uttered given the negative fallout such communal remarks can have in both India and Bangladesh? Is this expected from an erudite politician with a PhD degree?
Our foreign minister stated that anti-Indian insurgents were patronised during BNP's tenure and the government was "delighted" that Khaleda Zia had admitted her mistake. She went further by asking Khaleda Zia to apologise for her government's support to militancy as that had tarnished Bangladesh's image. She alleged that the opposition leader had patronised terrorism whenever in power. Dr. Dipu Moni may have little respect for Khaleda Zia, but she can't overlook the fact that, in a parliamentary democracy, Khaleda Zia is the shadow prime minister. By belittling her, Dr. Moni may have scored high with her political mentors but at what price?
Through showing that our internal politics is too acrimonious to leave any room for respect and courtesy for our national leaders, what kind of country branding is she doing? Does she realise how our powerful neighbour is benefiting from such open display of fractured national unity at the highest level of the state? Again, this is coming from another PhD holder in the cabinet.
BNP is not above these partisan sins either, as reflected in statements that the party made before and after the visit by the Indian prime minister last year. Just as AL did not have the political sagacity to take BNP into confidence on the contentious bilateral issues that were to be discussed during Dr. Singh's visit, BNP also did not have the wisdom to react to the visit in a matured manner.
Khaleda Zia is entitled to communicate her disappointment to Dr. Singh with the outcome of his visit as in her opinion no tangible solution was achieved on the key issue of river water-sharing. However, worn out statements like "AL is selling Bangladesh to its foreign masters," "no Indian transport will be allowed to cross Bangladesh," are nothing but political stunts that have lost their relevance and appeal at a time when people are better informed and expect more sensible statements from our leaders. While our rival parties were busy undermining each other, let's look at what was happening at the Indian front.
Before leaving Delhi, Dr. Singh met BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, and L.K. Advani. Sushma and Arun issued statement supporting the prime minister's visit and wished him success. After the visit, Sushma stated in the Institute of South Asia Studies, Singapore: “The beginning has been very, very good……relations between the two countries have strengthened…….There was some communication gap, that is why she (Mamata) did not join the delegation. Since she was not in the delegation, the prime minister thought it would be safe to just keep it (Teesta deal) aside for a later period." While Dr. Singh was being criticised for not having anticipated the last minute U-turn by the mercurial Mamata, it is the BJP leader who was defending the Indian PM in a foreign forum. Is this conceivable in the Bangladeshi political culture?
On Dr. Singh's return to Delhi, Sushma criticised the PM's visit by highlighting the "Internal contradictions" of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which negatively impacted his visit, and demanded that details of land boundary agreement reached during the visit be made public. Later, when asked to explain Sushma's earlier praise, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar told media: "During a visit to a foreign country, the government is not criticised. This is part of diplomacy."
One wishes that our leaders could have shown the same decency and diplomacy in dealing with each other. In October 2011, BJP rejected the Indo-Bangla land-swap deal on the ground that it ignored the sentiments of the people of Assam and West Bengal and, in its opinion, rights and interests of the local population had been severely compromised. However, that did not stop BJP from constructive engagement with the ruling UPA on Indo-Bangla relations through continued participation in the government initiated consultative process.
Bangladesh is smaller than India in almost all major parameterssize, population, economy, global clout etc. If we are to deal with such a big and powerful neighbour in an effective manner, it has to start by synergising our inner strengths and reflecting the same through political statesmanship that makes political leaders across both sides of the aisles coordinate, consult, and cooperate on matters of vital national interests even if there are differences in their ideologies and strategies. Otherwise, our fractured national identity, resulting from reckless politics, will continue to weaken our position with a powerful neighbour with whom we need to engage on many vital issues like water, trade, transit, and terrorism.
When a big neighbour has the advantage of national unity and matured understanding among its key political actors and the smaller neighbour is weakened by a divisive and self- destructive political culture the outcome is not difficult to perceive and, much to the peril of the nation, inevitable as well.
The writer is Professor, Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.