In Bangladeshi foreign policy, the “India factor” looms large because not only is India a neighbouring country but also because bilateral issues between Bangladesh and India, some of which directly affect the people in Bangladesh, have been pending for a long time. These issues, though well known, cannot be resolved mainly due to mutual mistrust and lack of confidence.
The overall relationship between Bangladesh and India has often been affected by varying political complexion of governments in two countries. Playing the “blame game” with each other is of no use. We must look forward with a constructive spirit to develop sustained friendly and cooperative bilateral relations.
The installation of the Awami League and the Congress party to power in the two countries created a congenial ambience to settle long-standing issues through productive negotiations because of the historic links between the two parties since the 1971 Bangladesh war. The opportunity must not be missed.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has emphasized the need for interconnectivity within the region and Bangladesh became a party to the Asian Highway Network, proposed by ESCAP. She also proposes to build a deep seaport near Cox’s Bazar, a gate way to the Bay of Bengal, which may be used by all neighbours.
The four day visit to New Delhi by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister from 7 to10 September was fruitful as the Bangladesh government prepares for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s inaugural visit in the third week of December. India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao also visited Dhaka on 14 November and the two Foreign Secretaries have reportedly finalized the agenda for the trip.
The visit is viewed as crucial in demonstrating a commitment to addressing bilateral issues and the recent announcements from Dhaka and New Delhi are a mix of aspirations, good intentions and in most cases the targets are politically plausible or doable.
Against the background, during the visit, among bilateral issues, there are some “doables” which can be agreed upon that would contribute to restoring trust and confidence between the two countries.
Overall bilateral relations may proceed within the following framework:
First, as an aspiring regional and global power, India has the responsibility to understand and respect the sensitivity of a smaller neighbour, such as Bangladesh.
Second, the gains in each and every case are unlikely to be equal for both countries. Bangladesh may gain more than India in some areas and the reverse might be true in other areas for India. It is a challenge to the skill of negotiators to come up with a “win-win” situation for two countries.
Third, a comprehensive or sector-wise approach of all bilateral issues is to be considered, rather than addressing an issue on a piecemeal. In the past, India sought to negotiate a single issue on a bilateral basis, without appreciating that it is inter-connected with other issues and does not admit easy solution.
Fourth, if India pursues its policy in terms of the “Gujral doctrine” goodwill will emerge between the neighbours. The “Gujral doctrine” means strict reciprocity is not intended for smaller neighbours and whatever accommodation India is able to give, it provides, without asking for reciprocity
Finally, what India has to do is to adopt a regional or sub-regional policy-approach where all its smaller neighbours are on board for commonality of interests. A sub-regional unit comprising Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and northeastern states of India could be made an engine for economic growth because there are many opportunities to explore and exploit natural and human resources to mutual benefits. Later, the sub-region may extend its links with ASEAN and China.
Bangladesh has to live with the reality that it cannot remain insular from developments in neighbouring countries, such as India and Bangladesh must explore the advantages of its geographical position for its benefits.
Majority of people in neighbouring countries look at India, the larger and resourceful neighbour, with admiration and apprehension. Admiration is felt because the neighbour, is common bonds of history and geography and has been emerging as a global political and economic power. Apprehension emanates from stresses when neighbours are not sure of their position in the new geopolitical environment
There is a saying that one can choose friends but not neighbours. Bangladesh and India cannot re-fashion geography. The two countries are destined to live next to each other. Therefore, both Bangladesh and India must establish a broad framework in which political, economic, social and environmental concerns are sorted out amicably to mutual satisfaction.
India needs Bangladesh as much as Bangladesh needs India in the current regional and global environment. Let Indo-Bangladesh relations move on a mature partnership on economic, social and political level.Given the right spirit and the desire to live together in cooperation, there is no reason why the two countries cannot proceed with constructive relations for mutual benefit.