India-Bangladesh ties adrift

DHAKA: Bangladesh is gearing itself up to host the next summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation here next January. As the foreign ministers of the SAARC review progress in implementing the decisions taken at the 12th SAARC summit in Islamabad and define the agenda for future, Dhaka is ready to pick up the baton from Pakistan.

Bangladesh has a special attachment to the SAARC, for it rightly claims credit for initiating the process in the early 1980s. The first summit of SAARC took place in Dhaka in 1985.

The 13th SAARC summit in Dhaka will mark the 12th anniversary of the regional grouping and Bangladesh wants to make it a success by sustaining the momentum acquired in Islamabad. But the current uncertain phase in Indo-Bangladesh relations threatens to take the shine off the next SAARC summit.

India-Pakistan ties

It is often said that without an improvement in Indo-Pakistan relations, the SAARC would go nowhere. That is more true of Indo-Bangladesh ties, which are central to the integration of the eastern part of the subcontinent including Nepal and Bhutan. The agenda that SAARC has identified for itself in Islamabad — regional free trade, upgrading of transport and communication infrastructure, and energy cooperation — cannot be realised without a significant improvement in Indo-Bangladesh relations.

Manmohan's visit

Manmohan Singh will certainly visit Bangladesh to attend the 13th SAARC summit. That will be the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in nearly five years. Since she got elected as Prime Minister of Bangladesh at the end of 2001, Begum Khalida Zia has not been able to visit India.

And thereby hangs a tale — India and Bangladesh are in the danger of drifting apart. Both sides deny that Indo-Bangladesh relations are on a downward spiral. How come then the prime ministers of the two countries can't find time to visit each other's capitals? Must they only meet in other countries on the margins of multilateral conferences? Just a few days in Dhaka are enough to reveal the intensity of mutual frustration that has enveloped Indo-Bangladesh relations. Few countries enjoy so such intimacy and widespread mutual goodwill as India and Bangladesh do; yet New Delhi and Dhaka are finding it impossible to sustain a serious political dialogue to solve bilateral problems.

Mutual grievances

Bangladesh and India have both accumulated grievances against each other. For every complaint one side has nursed, the other has twice as many.

The many fears that animate the political elite in Bangladesh range from the consequences of the Indian plans to link various rivers to the huge trade deficit.

New Delhi has its own list of woes — from lack of transit facilities to inadequate cooperation in countering terrorism.

Both sides insist they want an improvement in relations. But they seem unable to figure a way out of the current impasse.

Unless there is some high-level political energy is devoted to addressing the problems at hand in the next few months, the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh in five years would turn out to be very correct in public and rather sour in private.

Large economy

When Indo-Pakistan relations are on the downswing the whole world comes breathing down on New Delhi and Islamabad. If New Delhi does not constantly remind itself of the special importance of Bangladesh in its economic and national security strategy, not one else will.

Steady growth in the last decade has allowed Bangladesh to overtake Pakistan in the human development index. Starting from a much lower base when it gained independence, Bangladesh has now equalled Pakistan's per capita income. Bangladesh is all set to become the second largest economy in South Asia after India.

Geography has made Bangladesh a bridge to North Eastern India and South East Asia. But politics has allowed it to become an impossible barrier to the east. The objectives of India's look East policy cannot be realised without a cooperative relationship with Bangladesh.

More important, India's border with Bangladesh is the longer than that with China.

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