Sunday, January 18, 2009

India and The New Bangladesh

Democracy's Comeback

The overwhelming victory of the coalition led by Awami League and its leader Sheikh Hasina, in the elections in Bangladesh, has been celebrated widely in India. It is indeed good news, and the contrast to the year-end 2007, when Pakistan was tottering on the brink after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, could not be more stark. The expectations are that Pakistan will now be almost irreversibly ruled by a democratic government, however weak, and that in Nepal, hostilities are over and a government, whatever its allegiance, will be firmly in control. With Sri Lankan government finally winning the war against Tamil Tigers, and Maldives and Bhutan successfully implementing democratic transition, it seems that democracy and peace are finally making a comeback in the South Asian region.


This could only be good news for India. Gone are those days of cold war policy making, when we played zero-sum games with our neighbours. The concept of sphere of influence lingers on, but appears dated in this age of global communication and terror. Earlier, it was important to see 'favourable' governments in power in the region; now, the best security for us is in the culture of democracy and shared prosperity.


However, old thinking dies hard and there are far too many people in India who do not like the Nepalese government's closeness to China, or the fact that Sri Lankan Army has now almost beaten the Tamils, who have strong cross-border allegiance. Awami League's victory in Bangladesh, seen in the prism of this thinking, is a good thing - as this is a party supposedly friendly to India.


Forever in Debt

Such assumption of friendliness, of course, originates from history, when India extended its logistical and military support to Awami League led Liberation Fighters and helped them defeat a genocidal West Pakistani army. India was the first country to recognize the independent Bangladesh, and helped its government closely to run its affairs after independence. One of the reasons of downfall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first Bangladeshi President and Sheikh Hasina's father, was that he was seen to be too close to India, a stooge, and successive administrations after his assassination, tried their best to distance themselves from India and get close to its regional rivals, China and even Pakistan. The post-liberation generation in Bangladesh, which grew up in the Eighties and the Nineties, have come to regard the Indian intervention in their liberation struggle as a helpful step, but one largely dictated by India's own geo-political interest. On the question of relationship between the two countries, a prominent Bangladeshi intellectual once told me that Bangladesh was no more indebted to India than the United States was to France, and yet it would have been a travesty to expect George Washington to become a vassal of Louis the XVIth, as India did expect of successive Bangladeshi governments.


Indeed, Indian policy towards Bangladesh varied from treating it as a friendly but weak nation to taking it for granted. Take water, for example, an extremely sensitive issue for this largely agrarian country. India, while it built a barrage at Farakka in West Bengal on the Ganges after a long consultation with Pakistani, and later Bangladeshi, authorities, started diverting its water soon after Mujib's death without first reaching a water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. This created an outrage, and though an agreement was worked out later, Bangladeshis always perceived it as an unfair one. The Padma, as Ganges is called downstream, today is much reduced river - something every Bangladeshi squarely blames on Indian unilateralism. Further, it did not help when, in 2003, the Indian government made public its intentions to link its various river basins, without a detailed consultation with the government in Dhaka. Overall, it affirmed the common Bangladeshi perception of India as a Big Brother state.


Bangladeshis today marvel at India's economic achievement and want to imitate its IT industry, though the lack of respect and consideration from India is too obvious to cancel out any feeling of admiration. The on-again off-again relationship between the two countries have not helped trade and exchange, though the cultural and people-to-people relationship across the border remained warm and close. Indian government, despite its professed liberalization and commitment to global trade, has been particularly harsh on Bangladeshi companies trading in India. The best known case on this is Rahimafrooz, the largest automotive battery manufacturer in Bangladesh, who saw a penal tariff being imposed on its batteries after it started making inroads in India, and the Indian manufacturers complained. A furniture business owner, who saw an opportunity when the Indian government recently allowed free trade through SAFTA in 2007 and expanded his business in Indian north-east, saw furniture being quickly added on to the sensitive list, therefore outside the SAFTA provisions, as he started gaining market share.


Besides, this is not just the Indian government, but Indian companies contributed to this mutual distrust. The commercial ties between India and Bangladesh were always strained; the double taxation avoidance treaty between two countries was signed very recently and many Indian companies used this as an excuse to trade with Bangladesh through their offshore subsidiaries, often located in tax havens. This also led to a low level of accountability and lack of professionalism in the commercial engagement, and stories abound how prominent Bangladeshi business houses were short-changed in the commercial transactions with Indian companies. While cultural misunderstanding is largely to blame for such fiasco, and there are indeed successful examples of Indo-Bangladesh commercial engagement, one would wonder whether the narrow, almost reluctant approach to trade is the primary reason for lack of trust between the two business communities.


Hasina's Mandate

While India has its share of responsibility in squandering the goodwill it earned through its engagement in liberation war, Bangladesh was indeed a difficult nation to do business with. Its recent experiments with democracy was riddled with corruption and internecine violence. Political killings were commonplace and Ministers amassed vast wealth on the back of rotten deals. The considerable wealth and natural resources of Bangladesh were plundered by successive governments since the 1980s to the extent that by 2001, Bangladesh was ranked the world's most corrupt state, beating Nigeria and a host of African nations in the game.


Bangladesh's recent politics point towards a common consensus against corruption and political violence. The country is no stranger to violence, but terrorism and violence particularly intensified during the five year rule of the BNP and its Islamist allies [2001-2006] and the ensuing Caretaker government had to pursue extreme options, including capital punishment for some of terror leaders, to control the violence.


It is commonly agreed that the result of this election adequately reflects such imperative, though Sheikh Hasina is an old hand and many of her colleagues and comrades, including the Jatiya Party Chief, ex-President HM Ershad, is indeed the corrupt-in-chief of the country. The results are somewhat paradoxical in that respect, though it appears far more decipherable when the following arguments are considered:


First, Bangladesh has experimented and failed to evolve a third way, an alternative to the two major parties in the fray. Attempts were made to create an alternative with Dr. Md Younis at the helm, taking advantage of his huge popularity and post-Nobel prize international prominence. However, such a move failed to gain political momentum. Besides, the Caretaker government, led by technocrats, started with great hopes but eventually lost its way in the political maze. When in disarray, its autocratic strains became all but visible. Bangladeshis, and all the external powers, obviously realized that their democratic options will be limited, for some time now, to the two warring begums.


Second, this victory is largely attributable to formation of effective coalition, as the results in 2001 were largely on account of BNP and the Islamist vote coming together. Awami League has an extremely motivated following of roughly 35 to 40% of Bangladeshi electorate, and with the consolidation of Anti-BNP votes through a broad-based coalition, they became unstoppable. However, it is prudent to note that this is a coalition victory more than it looks on surface [Awami League won a simple majority on its own] and Shiekh Hasina has to work with her partners if she has to create a sustainable government.


Third, one important factor in this year's election were the first time voters, young men and women millennials who care less about liberation struggle and are more concerned about the road ahead. Studies seem to suggest that Awami League and its partners got their votes; BNP's last minute lurch to Islamic conservatism has cost them dearly here. Bangladesh is a country of young people and this is the new generation which is going to dominate the political agenda from now on.


The All New Opportunity

Therefore, it is reasonable to expect Shiekh Hasina's policies to be dominated by the dynamics of her mandate rather than any feeling of past gratefulness. Her victory presents India with an opportunity, indeed; it is much easier to pursue a common agenda with this administration than it would have been with a coalition involving Jamaat. However, the position now is almost reminiscent of the heady post-liberation days: We have an exciting opportunity, for us to squander.


Bangladesh, contrary to popular perception, is an extremely important state for India. It is resource rich and strategically located. Access to Bangladeshi natural gas will change the economy of West Bengal, and access to sea port in Chittagong and road transit rights through the country will transform the troubled economies of Indian North-East and integrate them far better to the mainland. Bangladeshi entrepreneurs are cash rich and innovative, and free trade and investment opportunities between the two countries will benefit India as much as it will do to Bangladesh.


Besides, Bangladesh is militarily important. This was the reason for India's intervention in 1971 after all, to mitigate a threat on its Eastern borders. China has successfully cultivated the junta in Myanmar to lease air bases and missile installations close to Indian borders; any link-up with Bangladesh will allow it to reach the doorsteps of Kolkata.


However, more importantly, Bangladesh is critical for India's, and the World's, war on terror. If Pakistan was the first, and foremost, example of a modern state created on the basis of Islam, Bangladesh is a prime example how that identity could not be festered upon a linguistic group. If a prosperous, democratic state could be built in Bangladesh, that will serve as an example to the whole world. If it fails, only the Islamic hardliners will be pleased.


Bangladesh, over last several years, became the training ground for ISI and its terror brethren. The rural poverty, and disaffected, unemployed urban youth provided the ideal recruitment zone; the corruption and lawlessness allowed covert operations to go on. After much effort, the government of Bangladesh has pushed back some of these groups, but economic success and political stability will now be required to make those gains permanent.


India needs to engage with Bangladesh with this backdrop. It is time for fresh new thinking, even if it is Sheikh Hasina we will have to deal with. The situation will be irretrievable if we commit the mistakes of the past - take the country for granted or fail to give it its due weight - and we must build a relationship based on respect and mutual commitment. We must allow democracy to succeed, however unpalatable its outcome; and we must be prepared to share our prosperity, as only this can build sustainable peace in the region.


Rahul Gandhi, when speaking in Indian parliament in defence of the nuclear deal, urged his colleagues to think like a big country. In the affairs of South Asia, we have thought and acted with fear and insecurity for too long. It is time that we act like a big country, and engage our neighbours with sincerity and fairness.

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