Bangla bonhomie

If high-level visits are an indicator, Delhi has gone into overdrive to engage with Dhaka. In July alone, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, external affairs minister S.M. Krishna and home minister P. Chidambaram journeyed to Bangladesh. Commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma went a longer way — to Meghalaya to join his Bangladeshi counterpart in inaugurating a haat for trans-border rural trade.

Mrs Gandhi went down memory lane in her acceptance speech as she received the highest state award of Bangladesh on behalf of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. Dhaka honoured Indira Gandhi for her signal role in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. In doing so, Dhaka has not only done itself proud but has pulled the rug from under the feet of critics in India who love to complain that Bangladesh has “forgotten” India’s contribution to its freedom struggle.
In fact, going by the tepid coverage of the award ceremony in our mainstream press, it would seem that it is Indians who have forgotten Mrs Gandhi’s golden hour.
Dhaka’s graciousness in honouring Indira was of a piece with the maturity it displayed a few weeks ago when it elected to make light of the PMO’s faux pas in failing to expunge Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s off-the-record statement on the extent of anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh. Dhaka refused to make an issue of the thoughtless remarks. The upshot: It was business as usual when Mr Krishna arrived in Bangladesh shortly thereafter.
Another augury for improved bilateral ties was the recent Supreme Court decision to lift its 17-month stay on limestone mining by French multinational Lafarge in Meghalaya. The Indo-Bangladesh operations of Lafarge are a symbol of economic interdependence between the two countries. Lafarge, the global leader in cement, has set up a unique two-nation industrial project across the two sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border in the Meghalaya-Sylhet region. The $255 million cement plant is located in Bangladesh. Raw material for the plant, comprising limestone and shale, comes from quarries in Meghalaya via a 17-km-long belt conveyor.
Certain quarters opposed to the Meghalaya mining project had raised the bogey of environmental damage. In February 2010, the Supreme Court had placed a restraint on mining operations by Lafarge.
In its deposition before the apex court, the Centre made a strong plea for the lifting of the ban, citing bilateral relations with Bangladesh. The viability of the cement plant in Bangladesh would be threatened, it said. The “green” signal from the Supreme Court is widely seen as giving a boost to ties with Dhaka.
The flurry of activity gives the impression that the two neighbours are doing their best to optimise bilateral cooperation. The bonhomie should peak when Dr Singh travels to Bangladesh in September. Several agreements are expected to be signed at the time.
What is remarkable about the current state of Indo-Bangladesh relations is not what has been achieved, but really what has not been accomplished. The blame for the under-realisation of potential lies more with New Delhi than with Dhaka.
A stable Bangladesh that is willing to exploit the fullest potential of neighbourly interdependence can do wonders for India, especially for our Northeast. India is looking for transit through Bangladesh. Dhaka is not unwilling to grant that. Bangladesh is an investment destination whose depths have yet to be plumbed by Indian business. Companies that have ventured there have done very well. Take Marico, the leading Indian FMCG company. It has gone global in a major way in recent years. It has made acquisitions and set up manufacturing units in many countries across continents. But the bulk of the revenues of its international operations comes from Bangladesh. Marico is the fastest growing FMCG company in Bangladesh. Its Parachute is the biggest FMCG brand and Saffola Gold the only brand in its category in that country.
The one area India can and should do a lot more is bilateral trade. India should take measures that would help mitigate the huge trade imbalance between the two countries. It should, for instance, do a lot more to increase market access. It is difficult for Dhaka to fathom why, when Delhi enjoys such a huge trade surplus, it should have a negative list of 480 items for import.
Dhaka feels India is obsessed with Pakistan at the cost of its eastern neighbour, with which it shares a longer border. Ambassador Farooq Sobhan, the doyen among Bangladeshi diplomats, pointed out not long ago: “India is so ‘obsessed’ with Pakistan that Bangladesh gets totally marginalised in the process… The relationship has been relegated, in football terms, to the third division.”
While granting that Delhi has begun to look east, two thoughts continue to rankle. Where Dhaka is concerned, Delhi may have ceased to behave like the proverbial big brother, but it still finds it difficult to bring itself to behaving like the magnanimous older brother that it must in order to win over all shades of opinion there.
Influential sections of India’s decision-making apparatus must shed their distrust of Dhaka. Until that happens, policymaking will suffer. Equally important is the need to drive Indian bureaucracy to move expeditiously on outstanding issues. If mandarins fail to shed old habits it is because they sense that the leadership is not really committed to pushing ahead.
But there is cause for hope. If Sheikh Hasina’s ascension to power has given a fillip to Indo-Bangla ties, a similar push can possibly be provided by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s coming to power in Kolkata. It has been reported that Ms Banerjee may accompany Dr Singh when he visits Dhaka next month. That is how it should be. To use a metaphor from the railways, Ms Banerjee has been moving with the speed of a mail train to usher in change in her own state. She could perhaps now help provide speed and direction to the making and implementation of India’s policy towards Bangladesh.

Vivek Sengupta, public affairs analyst, is founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications

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