Bangladesh has urged India to open its doors wider to allow duty-free goods and reach a “meaningful” free trade agreement (FTA) to facilitate a “convergence (of interests)” that will make economy drive politics and bilateral relations.
“Politics has, unfortunately, driven our economic ties and has impacted overall relations. It is time to change this pattern. Once that happens, other issues like fighting militancy, boundary dispute and water sharing will also become easier to deal with,” Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to India Tariq A. Karim said.
The two countries are considering a FTA that will open up duty-free export of garments, leather, jute and ceramic products from Bangladesh to India. According to one estimate, two-way trade is likely to grow four-fold in around five years once the pact is in place.
Told about reservations in many Indian quarters because of past experiences, Karim said there could be “no guarantee”, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government had “walked an extra mile” to change earlier perceptions.
“If India does not respond, other forces are ready to take over in our country,” he warned.
India, he said, should take “a leap of faith” in cooperating with Bangladesh, without nursing “fears of past and the future”, and help create “a measure of inter—dependence” that cannot be easily reversed.
“All I can say is: bring down the wall of fear. There is no option. There is this chance for us both,” Mr. Karim said.
“Cooperation between us is now a choice, not a constraint,” Mr. Karim said, pointing to the presence of “stable coalition governments” now ruling in Dhaka and New Delhi.
He drew this comparison with the 1996-2001 tenure of Prime Minister Hasina when India too went through unstable and short-lived coalition governments.
The present phase is “most auspicious” for forging close bilateral ties. “The wheel of history has taken a full circle. The situation is almost like in 1971,” he said, referring to the close understanding between the two prime ministers of that era, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in the early 1970s, immediately after the birth of Bangladesh.
The task of the Hasina Government had been made easy by the spirit of accommodation shown by India when she visited New Delhi in January. The “unusual generosity” India showed in granting a $1—billion line of credit had been noted and the task was to translate it into specific projects.
Bangladesh welcomed investment, a significant signal sent by Indian telecom giant Bharti Airtel that has recently entered mobile telephony and telecom infrastructure.
Of Tata Group that withdrew its $3—billion investment offer, the highest ever Bangladesh has received, Mr. Karim said: “Tatas are most welcome, if they move away from the idea of buying cheap gas from us for their projects. We do not have gas to spare.”
Appreciating Indian concerns, both security and economic, in its north-eastern region, Mr. Karim said that reversing earlier policies, Dhaka had “decided to join South Asia,” by linking with the trans-Asian super highway and rail network.
One thing the two governments could leave for posterity would be to undo the British legacy of 115 enclaves that dot the border. This could be rationalized to end the sufferings of the people residing in those enclaves.
“It is a challenge, but it is not impossible,” he said a month ahead of the meeting of officials.
During Sheikh Hasina’s India visit in January, both the countries had come to an agreement to address the land issues keeping the spirit of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement.
“Now that political understanding has been reached, let us try a hundred percent. Even sixty percent achievement will be worth it.
“We do not have much time, and I am impatient,” Mr. Karim said.