11 April 2017

Sheikh Hasina's visit: Will India meet her more than half way?

By Tariq A Karim

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's last state visit to India was in January 2010. By all accounts, that was a game-changing visit. Relations between the two countries not only improved phenomenally but bilateral cooperation in multiple sectors took a quantum leap. Security cooperation is exemplary and closest ever. Land and maritime boundary disputes, casus belli for relations anywhere, were resolved amicably. 

India opened its markets to virtually all Bangladeshi goods on a duty-free and quota-free basis without demanding reciprocity. The web of road and rail connectivity saw revival and fresh impetus, while coastal shipping and direct maritime shipping agreements were signed and operationalised. Energy cooperation, with power flowing from India to power-strapped Bangladesh along linked grids is a brightly shining reality, while joint or stand-alone investments in the power generation sector are well underway. Bangladesh is sharing surplus bandwidth with India's northeastern region while the latter is providing petroleum products to Bangladesh. 

Perhaps, most importantly, that visit led to the landmark Framework Agreement for Cooperation and Development signed by the respective Prime Ministers in September 2011, which enjoined the two not only to explore and expand progressively areas of cooperation and collaboration but generated the resultant dynamics to explore the prospects of, and actually enable, multi-sectoral sub-regional cooperation among Bangladesh-Bhutan-India and Nepal (BBIN), hitherto a fond but distant hope, into leaping into the realm of the possible. 

The January 2010 visit also saw a revival of the somnolent Joint Rivers Commission meeting in March that year in which a remarkable development took place: The two countries agreed in principle that shared trans-boundary rivers could henceforth be discussed with other relevant co-riparians (e.g., Nepal in case of the Ganges and Bhutan in case of the Brahmaputra) -- a radical departure from the previous insistence of keeping rivers strictly within bilateral confines. 

However, while a draft agreement for interim sharing of the long-festering Teesta River water was arrived at in early 2011, its final signing was prevented by a sudden, eccentric shift in stance by the newly elected Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, reflecting the complexities of dealing with river water management and sharing. 

For Bangladesh, the lowest of the lower riparian that shares 54 trans-boundary rivers with India, river-related issues have always been highly emotionally charged and tended to translated into an existential narrative with defining spill-over capacity on other issues. All efforts to date by the union government in New Delhi as well as quiet personal approaches by Bangladesh have failed to move the West Bengal Chief Minister from her petulant stand.

A little over seven years later, Sheikh Hasina is now scheduled to make her second state visit to India commencing April 7. Significantly, the Bangladesh leader will be residing at Rashtrapati Bhavan as house guest of President Pranab Mukherjee in a reflection of the special relations that exist now between the two neighbouring countries. 

What are the perceived expectations on the two sides and what should observers be expecting from this visit? 

For Sheikh Hasina, ensuring water and energy security for economic development and poverty alleviation and enabling her robust economy to now surge well above the present annual GDP growth rate of 7 per cent is of foremost importance, not only to win the next elections but also to establish firmly her legacy. Connectivity, in this context, must also be seen by her public to be a win-win for all countries of the sub-region, not for any one country alone. 

Teesta: The continuation of the stalemate and inability on India's part to sign the Teesta agreement, which is still hostage to whims and caprices of one person, namely West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has loomed ever larger in distorting public perceptions in Bangladesh. 
Even though Teesta is only one of the 53 remaining rivers that need to be addressed, its non-finalisation has transformed this -- perhaps quite unnecessarily so -- into a highly emotionally charged touchstone in the Bangladeshi political psyche. There will be very high expectations among Bangladeshis that their Prime Minister could have surely agreed to undertake the visit on the expectation of finally clinching signature of this agreement.

Ganga Barrage: The Ganges Treaty of 1996 was predicated on Bangladesh's need to build a Ganga barrage within her own territory to ensure internal water security free from the vagaries of nature. Bangladesh would not only like India's consent, but also welcome Indian assistance, to build this project. This could be a joint friendship project. (Notably, China very recently has offered to help Bangladesh undertake this important project). 

Basin-wide management of rivers: Since January 2010, Bangladesh has consistently tried to move the discourse away from the long dominant narrative of river water sharing, so evocative of the Partition syndrome, to holistic river management of river basins that would evoke feelings of participatory collaboration by all co-basin riparians. 

While the UPA government had signalled its willingness in 2010 and subsequently to embrace this approach, there seems to have been a stepping back on the Indian side in the last couple of years, into a more transactional mode. One is dismayed and quite baffled by this regression and suspects there may be concerns in Delhi of implications of entering collaboration on eastern Himalayan river basins in view of current problems with western Himalayan basins. This is irrational as each river basin has its own characteristics and dynamics and should be treated on its own merits. If this fallacious logic were to be followed, there should be no BBIN sub-regional collaboration either.

Reviving river connectivity: For Bangladesh -- as indeed for West Bengal and the northeastern states of India -- given the geo-morphology of this sub-region, using the rivers was historically the dominant mode of connectivity, since roads are difficult to build and maintain during the greater part of the year. Recent studies reveal, incontrovertibly, that river transportation is the most fuel-economic and carbon-efficient mode of transportation. 

Sheikh Hasina, very early on in January 2009, had publicly declared that she wanted to revive and resuscitate her country’s rivers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that reviving river connectivity is now a priority objective of his government. Bhutan, too, is keen to revive historical navigational links between the mountain kingdom and India and Bangladesh that had once existed. And even Nepal is echoing this same desire. Reviving this ancient river connectivity, severed after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, would also, therefore, strengthen the logic for holistic river management by basin-riparians in progressive stages. 

Energy cooperation: Without ensuring energy security, Bangladesh cannot effectively achieve its ambitious industrialisation and development goals. While it wishes to set up several export processing/special economic zones, those will remain unattainable without adequate infrastructure underpinned by distress-free power supply. The current stage of cooperation, set in motion in 2010, will hopefully expand significantly.

The current state of bonhomie in relations is conducive to enabling harvesting of renewable hydro-electricity in the Northeast. One can envisage a scenario of "dual or multiple transit" arrangements, whereby Bangladesh will, apart from acting as a conduit for Indian goods and services from its mainland to the land-locked northeastern states, also enable transit of hitherto hostage power to be generated in the Northeast to the Indian national grid (and keep some for itself), as well as enable Bangladesh to generate and evacuate power from Bhutan and Nepal to Bangladesh. 

Energy trade will serve to transform the bilateral and sub-regional relationships from the sporadically transactional into a continuously symbiotic one.

For India, friendly and good relations with Bangladesh have acquired critical importance in operationalising its "Act East" initiative that would not only mainstream its long peripheralised Northeast but interactively link up its own economy with the booming economic growth engines that are the ASEAN and East Asian economies. This necessitates strengthening and expanding the network of physical connectivity for faster, efficient and more economic means of transportation of goods and boosting trade and development. 

Reviving snapped connectivity links on roads and railways, therefore, assumes primary importance. One may expect a slew of agreements/ announcements in this area as evinced in media reports on both sides. 

Security cooperation: However, India also has some serious security concerns emanating from the phenomenon of violent radicalism spiralling out of control. While current cooperation on combating violent extremism from radicalised elements/groups has been exemplary to date since 2009, one may expect further strengthening of cooperation and cooperative mechanism in this field.

Defence Cooperation: Since 2009, there has been steady improvement of friendly relations between the armed forces of the two countries, with regular exchange of goodwill visits by respective Service chiefs, staff officers and delegations. There has been participation in some joint exercises as well. 

However, India has been concerned by what it perceives as an aggressive Chinese foray to garner strategic influence on its eastern flank. The long history of Bangladesh-China defence cooperation, established in the late 1970s by then President -- and founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party -- Ziaur Rahman, (reportedly through signing a bilateral agreement) has long been viewed with jaundiced eyes by India. Recent purchase of Chinese submarines by Bangladesh Navy was more than simply looked askance at in India. 

While India has been pressing Bangladesh for entering into a comprehensive Defence Cooperation Agreement -- preferably long-term -- that would embrace sale of equipment, training and joint exercises, public reaction from some quarters to this in Bangladesh is less than enthused. 

Sheikh Hasina is likely to tread the political waters cautiously at this stage, considering how deeply entrenched the defence links with China established by President Ziaur Rahman -- and subsequently fostered just as diligently by President Hussain Muhammad Ershad -- remain. 

But she is also likely to understand the necessity of starting some degree of cooperation in this sector as well, not only to wean away (and dilute) her armed forces from continuing over-dependence on China but also, in keeping with current trends in many other countries, of diversifying sources and nodes of cooperation. 

With land and maritime boundary issues having been resolved peacefully and amicably, there is no need for either to consider each other as conventional security threats. This could, therefore, be a good opportunity to engage with each other in addressing other serious non-traditional threats, against maritime piracy, maritime poaching by distant players on marine fisheries and mineral resources and protecting ecological commons. 

With Bangladesh identified notably by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a country environmentally endangered by the multi-pronged threats of global atmospheric and sea-water warming, glacier retreat and likely monsoonal aberrations, it is in the interest of both countries to also engage in joint disaster management collaboration. 

Sheikh Hasina had demonstrated quite clearly, unequivocally and palpably in her first visit -- as she had done earlier in 1996 -- that she would crack down relentlessly on radicalised elements and give no quarter to anyone using Bangladeshi soil to pose security threat to India. In sharp contrast, the attitude of the opposition has continued to remain equivocal, if not hostile. 

Sheikh Hasina is now in the second half of her second elected term in office, and if she is visiting India, she will certainly be doing so in the backdrop of certain public perceptions and expectations in her country. 

There will, therefore, be greater urgency to get things done. Given the complex nature of relations and goals set, an oversight and coordination mechanism would of necessity be required to be put in place for guiding and overseeing such bilateral and sub-regional cooperation. 

Multiple activities of several line ministries in all countries concerned must be coordinated and trained to work in tandem rather than in fierce competition (entailing turf wars against each other) that could be counter-productive to the over-arching bilateral and sub-regional goals. 

In the public space, there is growing perception that India got all that it wanted, but Bangladesh must live on continuing hope, on promises yet to be fulfilled (read Teesta). To neutralise this quickly, the forthcoming visit of Sheikh Hasina should enable her to return to Bangladesh with a few big tickets that will, if not finally bring to closure the Teesta issue, at least put it in larger, more strategic, perspective and reducing its magnified importance in the overall scheme of things. 

In her first term, Sheikh Hasina demonstrated her characteristic boldness and took a huge leap of faith in building bridges of friendship and cooperative relations for mutual benefit with India, even perhaps imperilling her personal security and putting her political capital at stake. 

Bangladesh, as a small (relatively speaking) state dwarfed by India demonstrated that it had the grit, imagination, and courage to take bold and personal risky political decisions with a larger vision of the region in mind, overriding typically, long-entrenched recalcitrant mindsets that defined not only its polity but also tethered immovably to the ground its mandarins. 

India, however, tied itself up in political knots by trumping what was clearly in India's larger national interest (of honouring a bilaterally agreed upon interim arrangement on the Teesta) by the principle of "cooperative federalism". 

Sheikh Hasina is once again visiting India, ready to make the bold decisions against the grain of public optics. If not reciprocated in equal measure by her hosts, it could be replete with great personal risks to herself. 

Can one dare to hope that this time, the larger logic of "collaborative regionalism" will trump "cooperative federalism"? Will the Indian leadership (and perhaps, more moot, its mandarins) match the boldness of vision, courage and gumption of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to meet her at least half way, if not more, as would behove the aspiring global player that India views itself as?

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