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Rediff.com  » News » Why New Delhi must not send Hasina back empty-handed

Why New Delhi must not send Hasina back empty-handed

January 04, 2010 13:20 IST
South Asia is not only the world's most populous region, it is also the most volatile. And despite their common history, the region's nations have been unable to join forces, mired as they are in mutual suspicion and hostility. India may aspire for world recognition, but it will be hobbled in its efforts so long as South Asia is a mess.

Given the region's strategic importance for India and the world, rediff.com is pleased to announce that veteran journalist Nitin Gokhale, defence and strategic affairs editor with NDTV, kicks off a fortnightly column on India's neighbourhood. In a career spanning 26 years, Gokhale has been reporting on military affairs and militancy from hostile terrains like India's North-East, the Kashmir valley and the Naxal heartland. Read on!

Early next week New Delhi is expected to roll out a red carpet for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

Her five-day India visit is seen as a significant landmark in the now-on, now-off relations between New Delhi and Dhaka.

And not without reason.

For the first time in 38 years since East Pakistan became Bangladesh with considerable Indian help, the two neighbours are taking their mutual cooperation to the highest level possible.

After nearly a decade of mutual suspicion and misgivings, there is suddenly a new-found trust between the two nations.

Two key developments over the past one year may have contributed to this happy situation.

The first was Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League's massive electoral victory in early 2009. For the first time in Bangladesh's fragile democratic set-up a political party had secured such an overwhelming mandate. This in itself would not have been enough to repair the damage to Indo-Bangla relations.

But then the abortive mutiny in Bangladesh Rifles happened.

The revolt shook the foundations of the newly sworn-in Awami League government. For a couple of days it looked as if the Sheikh Hasina government may not survive the turmoil brought about by the bloody revolt.

That's where India quietly, unobtrusively, put its weight behind the fledgeling Hasina regime and helped the new government tide over the crisis.

In less than a year after that quiet assistance and support from India, Dhaka reciprocated in kind by initiating a crackdown on top leaders of Indian insurgent group the United Liberation Front of Asom based in Bangladesh.

The quick handover of top Ulfa leaders Arabinda Rajkhowa, Raju Baruah, Chitraban Hazarika and Sasha Choudhury, as well as two important Lashkar-e-Tayiba operatives to India in December 2009 marked a new beginning in mutual security cooperation.

Now, as Hasina comes visiting, India is likely to seize the opportunity to consolidate the growing friendship. Apart from extending a soft loan worth over 500 million dollars for infrastructure development in Bangladesh, India is planning to help boost that country's power generation.

Besides, New Delhi and Dhaka are likely to sign agreements on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters and on combating international terrorism, organised crime and drug trafficking, during Hasina's visit. On the economic front, India will most probably clear the long-pending issue of transit for Bangladesh vehicles to Nepal and Bhutan through the Siliguri corridor. The thorny issue of enclaves and lack of facilities for Indians and Bangladeshis living in those areas along the border is also likely to be sorted out to each others' satisfaction.

Although India also wants transit rights through Bangladesh to cut travel time between north-eastern states and the rest of the country, New Delhi is not likely to press the issue for the moment given well-entrenched opposition to the idea within Bangladesh.

The overall effort, from what one understands, is to boost Hasina's stature by agreeing to many of Dhaka's long-standing demands so that she can consolidate her position domestically. Of course, India does not want to make this too obvious since Hasina's main rival Begum Khaleda Zia is waiting in the wings to pounce on any mistake that the Awami League makes vis-à-vis its relations with India.

An embittered Khaleda Zia, who's Bangladesh National Party was trounced in the last general elections, has already warned her rival not to "come back empty-handed from New Delhi." In her first public appearance after last year's electoral defeat, Khaleda had an ominous warning for Hasina: "Cancel unequal treaties and sign accords safeguarding the country's interest if you want to stay in power for the full term. And then we will work together to continue the democratic process," Khaleda said in her speech on January 1. The former prime minister publicly accused Hasina of "serving the interest of foreigners," in a not-so-veiled reference to growing ties with New Delhi.

Clearly, some of Hasina's political opponents -- who we now know were also behind the BDR mutiny -- will not allow her much breathing space if she goes back from New Delhi without substantial gains. India will therefore have to demonstrate deft diplomacy and maturity in dealing with Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina. It is after all in India's long-term interest that the Awami League and other secular, democratic forces in Bangladesh flourish.

The author is NDTV's defence & strategic affairs editor. The views expressed here are personal

Nitin Gokhale