Cover interview: C Raja Mohan
Manmohan-Hasina: When Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh came in from elections in 2008 and 2009, respectively, both were forward-looking, seeking to do something for the bilateral relationship. The memorandum they signed is a substantive text, covering the full spectrum from boundary delineations to transit issues.
Bangladesh goodwill: The goodwill shown by Bangladesh in facilitating the capture of Arabinda Rajkhowa made a dramatic difference in India’s stance. Analysts in the neighbouring countries tend to pooh-pooh India’s security concerns, saying that they represent mere tactics to browbeat the neighbours. But there was genuine Indian concern about infiltration from Bangladesh, and once that matter was addressed by Dhaka, New Delhi responded with an immediate, enormous gesture.
Indian commitment: On the Indian side, there is goodwill and commitment to do as agreed, but the problem is to make the bureaucracy move. There are so many arms of the state to take along, from the water bureaucracy to the state governments and the security agencies. So there is a danger that this window of opportunity between India and Bangladesh might close.
Gujral Doctrine: The history of rapprochement with Bangladesh goes back first to the time of I K Gujral as prime minister. The Gujral Doctrine resulted from his old socialist thinking, that it is important to go more than halfway with a small neighbour. But Gujral did not have a sense of economics, so his initiative remained only an opening. Atal Behari Vajpayee as prime minister had the political capacity to follow the path laid by Gujral, but events in Bangladesh during his term shut that window. In Manmohan Singh’s first term, Shyam Saran as foreign secretary pushed the idea of integration and connectivity, highways and railways. His successor, Shiv Shankar Menon, continued that line, with the added vision that India had a stake in creating a peaceful periphery and must provide growth opportunities for the neighbours.
Overcoming Partition: Today, much more than Pakistan, it is Bangladesh that provides the opportunity for India to succeed in its neighbourhood policy. If this works, the possibilities are immense. Back in 1947, Partition broke up what was a single market. With socialism and nationalism making a simultaneous entry into the Subcontinent, the economics and politics both became increasingly insular. By restoring the old routes and creating a free market in the India-Bangladesh sphere, we would be developing a new paradigm. It is not a matter of undoing Partition but overcoming it, bringing prosperity not only to Bangladesh but to the Northeast, Eastern India and Nepal – together one of the poorest regions of the world. While India’s opening up to Sri Lanka and Nepal are important for their own sake, the release of commerce and unlocking the border with Bangladesh is far more consequential. If it succeeds, you can begin to work on the tragedies of Partition. The next step would be to build the relationship with Pakistan.
The Bangladeshi bridge: Bangladesh is a bridge between India and its Northeast, and between Southasia and Southeast Asia. It can become a hub for transit and travel, a hub for manufacturing. If capital flows are liberated, you interconnect Bangladesh and Indian businesses, and provide duty-free access for Bangladesh products in India, we stand to reap exponential advantages. Going beyond the terra firma, the Bay of Bengal has huge deposits of gas and oil. Growth of a stable relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka would allow the entire Bay of Bengal community to work together.
C Raja Mohan is a journalist and foreign-policy analyst, presently the strategic-affairs editor of the Indian Express, New Delhi.