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Sunday, October 28, 2012

[] Three questions for Khaleda Zia

Three questions for Khaleda Zia

Rudroneel Ghosh

With Bangladeshi leader of opposition Khaleda Zia in New Delhi for a week-long visit, one can expect a flurry of substantive exchanges. There are two main reasons why Zia's visit is more than a courtesy call. First, Bangladesh goes to polls sometime late next year, and Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) could very well come to power. After all, a mere 3% difference in vote share is what separates the current opposition from the ruling Awami League regime. Given the massive anti-incumbency factor that all incumbent governments in Bangladesh face, that's hardly a comfortable margin. Besides, it hasn't helped the Awami one bit that its tenure has seen several (alleged) scams. The BNP will surely try and capitalise on these missteps.      

For New Delhi, the engagement with Zia is part of an effort to build ties with all stakeholders in Bangladesh. There is a growing understanding that for India-Bangladesh ties to become irreversible, New Delhi can't be seen as favouring one Bangladeshi political formation over another. Of course, New Delhi has its own interests and preferences. But it realises that it cannot choose which government is in power in Dhaka. Plus, India-Bangladesh ties have made significant progress over the last four years, notwithstanding room for improvement. New Delhi would want to protect and sustain the gains even if the BNP were to win the next election. 

So, what's on the agenda for Zia's visit? Yes, Teesta river water sharing, border killings, Tipaimukh dam and exchange of enclaves are all on the cards. But these are hardly surprising. According to my reading, New Delhi would want to know three things from Zia and her entourage:

Caretaker government: A topic of huge political debate in Bangladesh that is bound to get more pronounced as polls approach. Last year, the Awami government repealed the system that saw elections being held under a neutral, non-party caretaker government. The BNP wants the system reinstated and has even threatened to boycott the next election if it's not. However, the last time the system was in place, the caretaker government, backed by the military, plunged Bangladesh into a state of emergency that lasted for almost two years. A repeat of such suspension of democratic rights would be a problem. On the other hand, if the BNP sticks to its demand and boycotts the polls, it would certainly cast a shadow on the credibility of the next government. So, New Delhi would want to know what is the BNP's strategy going forward. Is it really serious about boycotting the polls? For, another round of political instability in Bangladesh won't do anyone any good. 

Transit or transshipment: One of the key economic advantages of enhanced bilateral ties is mutually beneficial transit facilities. India has agreed to facilitate transit between Bangladesh and Nepal, and between Bangladesh and Bhutan through its own territory. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is yet to finalise the modalities of the transit package it would like to offer India. While India would love nothing more than to have the rights to move goods and people through Bangladesh to its northeast or from the northeast to the Bangladeshi ports of Chittagong and Mongla, the BNP is not too keen on such unfettered transit facilities. It may be more amenable to transshipment, which would see Indian goods being transported across Bangladesh by Bangladeshi transporters. So, New Delhi would like to know from Zia what exactly is her position on providing transit to India. 

War crimes trials: Bangladeshi politics is fundamentally linked to its Liberation Struggle, and the ongoing trials of war criminals represent an effort to come to terms with the past. It is in the interest of a strong, secular Bangladesh that justice be done and those responsible for war crimes ranging from genocide, rape, arson, looting, torture, etc be suitably punished. Indeed, Bangladesh's secular credentials depend on the successful conclusion of the war crimes trials. But the fact that those on trial are former and incumbent leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami --- an ally of the BNP--- and the BNP itself means that the future of the trials under a BNP regime is in doubt. New Delhi would want to know from Zia her position on the war crimes trials and whether she would allow them to continue if she were to come to power. 

Khaleda Zia has an important decision to make. She could choose to stick to her traditional anti-India stance for narrow political gains. Or she could choose to effect a shift in her policy towards India and pursue equitable, friendly relations. In making that choice she would do well to heed the words of former Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee --- "We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our neighbours."


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