Following the cyclone Sidr that hit Bangladesh on 15 November 07, sympathies and assistance poured into Bangladesh for the victims from its neighbours and the international community at large. India's External Affairs Minister came to Bangladesh and it was agreed that India would sell 5 lakh tons of rice to Bangladesh at US$ 430 per tonne to meet its urgent needs.
People of Bangladesh were pleased that at a time of need, India came forward to assist Bangladesh. But that sentiment steadily evaporated as the days passed and no rice reached from India. Apparently conditions across land borders were made too difficult for the rice to reach Bangladesh. This was partly because of stoppage of India's customs on export of non-basmati rice and partly because the price of rice in India reached US$1,000 per tonne.
Although the ban or the price was not applicable to export rice for Bangladesh as this was agreed earlier, the conduct of Indian customs at the borders created confusion and some anger in the minds of people in Bangladesh. To many, it seemed that India's customs department was independent of other agencies of the Union government.
Why did this problem of implementation occur? Bangladeshi people were asking, among others, three questions: Is it because of the lack of coordination between the agencies of the Union government in New Delhi? Was it a deliberate attempt by Indian rice-traders to get more money by delaying the export of rice to Bangladesh? And is it disagreement or rivalry between the traders of West Bengal and those from Delhi to capture the Bangladesh market that delayed reaching rice to Bangladesh? The real story remains unclear.
Whenever questions were asked to Indian officials, the standard reply was "nothing was wrong" and business continued as usual, even after a TV footage showed a line of trucks carrying rice being held up at India's land border stations. Bangladeshi people were obviously amused because the situation on the ground did not bear any relation with the "nothing-wrong" statements. The TV footage created a perception among the majority in Bangladesh that India put procedural obstacles in transporting rice to Bangladesh. Perception is very important than reality among ordinary people.
Bilateral relations are the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private manage relations between Bangladesh and India. Whether the Indian traders or somebody else was responsible for the delay is not the point because the ultimate responsibility rests on the government to facilitate the smooth sale of rice to Bangladesh.
Friends of India in Bangladesh see it as a great missed opportunity for India to create a positive image in Bangladesh. It is a pity that the Indian government authorities or its representatives did not make it clear to the general public that Indian government had nothing to do in delaying the export of rice.
Bangladesh is placed in a dilemma because it cannot ignore powerful India. At the same time, its closeness with India is like a "bear hug". A situation similar to that between the US and Canada, which a former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said was like "sleeping with an elephant, no matter how friendly and even tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt".
It cannot be denied that within some quarters in Bangladesh, there is an anti-India feeling and a comparable anti-Bangladesh feeling perhaps in India. The anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh appears to be the manifestation of "small country syndrome", just as a New Zealander has towards Australia or a Canadian towards the US. But anti-Bangladesh sentiment in India arises from a view that Bangladesh does not cooperate with India in many matters that are vital for India's interests. It is a pity that perception of India's non-cooperation in sending rice to Bangladesh is likely to strengthen the anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh.
There appears to be a contradiction in India's behaviour within the region. While India considers itself the dominant power in South Asia, in bilateral relations it appears to believe in exacting equal benefits from its smaller neighbours on the principle of "eye for an eye". India is aware that it is a regional power but it forgets that it has certain responsibility that arises from it.
Bilateral relations exist independently of governments and their policies. Mere good government-to-government relation is not enough because at the end of the day, people make or unmake governments. If perception of a country is poor to people, it has an impact on the conduct of relations of government with that country.
Whether it is correct or not, the saga of sale of Indian rice to Bangladesh appears to have left a poor impression in Bangladesh. It may linger for some time. India seems to have lost credibility in certain quarters as a reliable trade partner for Bangladesh. Whoever is responsible for the perception, it does not help in fostering good bilateral relations.