Cover interview: Tariq A Karim
East by Northeast: Bangladesh will be helping itself by helping the Indian Northeast. Only with Bangladesh will India’s ‘Look East’ policy come into its own and acquire substance. Bangladesh is in a happy position to offer itself as a gateway between Southasia and Southeast Asia. The states of the Northeast are eager to develop a relationship with Bangladesh, and the chief ministers are visiting Dhaka. New Delhi has no problem with these contacts. Mizoram and Tripura have asked for haat bazaars to open along the border.
Mandate for bilateralism: There is a rare alignment in the political players who succeeded in the December 2008 elections in Bangladesh and the April-May 2009 elections in India. There was a strong alignment in 1970-71, next a relatively weak alignment in 1996, and now again we have an energetic alignment between the two prime ministers with strong mandates. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came into office knowing that the relationship with India was of fundamental importance. She grasped the idea that, in the bilateral negotiations, the tradeoffs have to be cross-sectoral rather than unilinear. Meanwhile, we have to address and be seen to be addressing India’s security concerns.
Transit: When the Bangladesh-India communiqué refers to transit, it refers to: a) transport between India’s mainland and Northeast, through Bangladesh, b) access for Nepal and Bhutan to Bangladeshi ports, c) access for India’s Northeast to Bangladesh ports, and, d) a land bridge between Southasia and Southeast Asia. The foundation for India-Bangladesh connectivity has been there since before Partition, with rail transport, road transport and water transport. When we revive connectivity, Bangladesh will benefit through transit fees. We can never correct the imbalance of commerce with India, so we have to try to bring some measure of balance through other means, such as income through transit. But to begin with, allowing transit gives us goodwill. The Dhaka establishment has always regarded transit as our bargaining chip, but we might miss the boat if we do not bargain properly.
Trade: Our strengths are in garments and food processing, and we would like access to the Indian markets for these. We need to comply with India’s regulatory regime by improving and conforming to Indian standards and requirements. The non-tariff barriers in India must be tackled, and we seek the facilities that India gives to Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Border disputes: There are issues in relation to only 6.5 km of the 4098 km border. There are 111 Indian enclaves on the Bangladeshi side, 51 Bangladeshi enclaves on the Indian side. The reconfiguration of the boundary would need constitutional amendment, but a lease in perpetuity would work just as well, and would remove a key irritant. There would be less excuse for crossborder firings between the security forces on each side, and would also do away with the safe havens for contraband trade.
Political polarisation: The difference between Bangladesh and India is that despite sharp divisions between parties and personalities, in the latter there is consensus on foreign policy. This is not the case in Bangladesh. However, the discourse is changing for the better in Dhaka, and even the BNP now says there is need for a change in mindset. However, the civil society is weak, and there is party-wise polarisation among the opinion-makers; the bureaucracy has been tampered with so much that it timid. Still, the prime minister has taken risks, and her approach is seen as successful by the people at large. The talk in Dhaka is that, having opened up to India on transit, we must get something in return. The negotiators would look foolish if this did not happen.
India: On the Indian side, the leadership is agreeable but the bureaucracy still seems focused on linear tradeoffs rather than cross-sectoral adjustments. By the time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh goes to Dhaka, we will have to show movement on the four areas of importance – water, trade, security and border disputes. Success in implementing the communiqué would be a paradigm shift in regional relationships. The prospects of Bangladesh are important for India’s security, in terms of migration, for example. Keep in mind that if Bangladesh were to grow by eight percent, with open trade the growth of the Indian Northeast too would go up from four percent to six percent.
Tariq A Karim is a scholar and retired diplomat, appointed Bangladesh High Commissioner to India by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in August 2009.