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Thursday, November 1, 2012

[] IDSA COMMENT: Khaleda Zia`s Visit to India

Begum Khaleda Zia`s Visit to India
Gautam Sen

October 29, 2012

Begun Khaleda Zia, the leader of Bangladesh's main opposition party,
the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is visiting India after nearly
six years at the invitation of the Indian government. Since her last
visit in 2006 as Prime Minister of Bangladesh, there has been a
substantial change in India-Bangladesh relations. Given the proximity
of views on communal politics, their socio-cultural disposition and
reckoning the historic background of affinity and cooperation between
the Awami League of Bangladesh and the Congress Party of India, it was
but natural that there would be an upturn in bilateral relations
between the two countries with the Awami League and Begum Sheikh
Hasina in power. But the Sheikh Hasina Government went even further in
its approach towards India, as has been evident on a range of issues
such as facilitating transhipment of critical stores (though
selectively as for example with respect to the Palaitana gas-based
power project of Tripura), enabling the setting up of a number of
border haats (markets) for the benefit of people inhabiting border
areas, allowing the swapping of enclaves to go through and, above all,
controlling the activities of anti-Indian north eastern militants and
even nabbing and handing over some of them to the Indian authorities.
It will be the endeavour of the Indian authorities to gauge the likely
posture of Begum Khaleda Zia, in the event of the BNP's return to
power after January 2013, on continuation of cooperation in the areas
where a large degree of mutual understanding has already been

It is interesting that Begum Zia`s visit is taking place just after
she, as the head of a BNP delegation, has returned from China. As per
official declarations from the BNP`s end as well as from Chinese
Government sources, the visit seems to have been another occasion for
reiteration of China`s goodwill and commitment towards Bangladesh.
China has assured Bangladesh of financial and technical support for
the second Padma river bridge, development of the deep-sea port at
Sonadia in the Bay of Bengal, operationalising the Chittagong-Kunming
rail link (through Myanmar, which will boost China`s trade to and
through Bangladesh) and also modernising the Bangladesh Armed Forces.
Earlier, China-Bangladesh relations, particularly during the previous
Begum Zia regime, were primarily politico-military in nature and
derived significance when appraised in the context of China-India
competition in South Asia. Nevertheless, Beijing maintained a thrust
towards assisting Bangladesh in building up its infrastructure as
noticeable from the its earlier aid pattern including the funding of
six "friendship bridges" in Bangladesh. Indian leaders will have to
contend with the Chinese presence and influence while assessing Begum
Zia`s intentions vis-a-vis India. At the same time, they also have to
induce her to adopt a positive view on the overall benefits of
all-round cooperation with India and overcome the mental block which
the opposition political parties in Bangladesh have traditionally had
with respect to comprehensive engagement with India.

A peaceful national election with results accepted by all the
political parties of Bangladesh may augur well for India. As per past
trends, polls have led to governments alternating between the Awami
League and BNP. Therefore, a change of government in Bangladesh may
not be unexpected if the next polls there are held properly with the
confidence of that country`s stakeholders. If the BNP wins by a good
majority, then the prospects of India working out a modus vivendi or a
broad range of understanding over core issues of India`s concern viz.
control of anti-India militants in Bangladesh, trade and transit of
select items from India through Bangladesh between eastern and north
eastern parts of India and water sharing would be better though not
necessarily assured. India will have to use all its tact to achieve
this. However, an acrimonious, violent and less-than-transparent
election process, even if resulting in a shaky BNP victory, will imply
that the extremist and fundamentalist political elements will act as
pressure groups and prevent the next BNP government from moving away
from its traditional ambiguous and unfriendly posture towards India.
Indian leaders may have to convincingly convey to Begum Zia and her
BNP party delegation their commitment towards the economic development
of Bangladesh, continuation of Indian aid in different sectors of that
country`s economy and also on their positive intent to address the
balance of trade issue, irrespective of the party in power there. In
essence, India`s Prime Minister will have to indicate that his
government has strong political will to work with a government led by
Begun Zia.

A second channel of dialogue at the political party level between the
major parties of India and those of Bangladesh including the BNP would
have been a reinforcing factor for improving relations between the two
countries in the event adequate headway cannot be made at the
governmental level. The problem however is that given the situation
currently prevailing, the prospects of a peaceful poll with confidence
of all concerned in Bangladesh is not too bright. Doing away with the
institution of a caretaker government during the polls, which was
earlier provided for under the Constitution of Bangladesh, has made
the political situation quite volatile in that country. Nonetheless,
the present dialogue between the Government of India and the BNP is
welcome in the interest of both countries.

Gautam Sen is ex-Additional CGDA and presently serving as Adviser
(Finance) of the Govenment of Nagaland.


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