Tragedy of errors

Posted in foreign policy, politics by jrahman on July 7, 2011

In a question and answer session with the editors of India’s major media outlets,  Manmohan Singh had this to say about the Indo-Bangla relations:

With Bangladesh, we have good relations. Bangladesh government has gone out of its way to help us in apprehending the anti-Indian insurgent groups which were operating from Bangladesh for a long time. And that is why we have been generous in dealing with Bangladesh. We are not a rich country. But we offered it a line of credit of one billion dollars, when Sheikh Hasina came here. We are also looking at ways and means of some further unilateral concessions. We are also looking at ways and means of finding a practical and pragmatic solution to the sharing of Teesta waters. I plan to go there myself. The external affairs minister is planning to go later this week. So, Bangladesh, our relations are quite good. So with Bangladesh, our relations are quite good. But we must reckon that at least 25 per cent of the population of Bangladesh swears by the Jamiat-ul-Islami and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI. So, a political landscape in Bangladesh can change at any time. We do not know what these terrorist elements, who have a hold on the jamiat-e-islami elements in Bangladesh, can be upto.

There are more errors here than one would have found in the balance sheets of Lehman Brothers.  Let me note a few over the fold.

Firstly, what is Jamiat-ul-Islami / Jamiat-e-Islami?  There is no such party in Bangladesh.  The closest I can think of is Jamaat-e-Islami.  Conflating Jamaat and Jamiat makes Dr Singh sound like those clueless westerners who think most Indians speak Hindu.

Of course Jamaat-e-Islami is strongly anti-Indian, Dr Singh has that right.  I have no idea whether it is in the clutches of the ISI, but its sister party in Pakistan was a favourite of Gen Zia-ul-Huq, this much is well known.  It’s also a historical fact that Jamaat fought against the creation of Bangladesh, and its members formed Al Badr and Al Shams death squads that perpetrated some of the worst atrocities during the war in 1971.

Given that history, it would be quite odd if a quarter of Bangladesh swore by Jamaat.

Fortunately for Bangladesh, and embarrassingly for Dr Singh, Jamaat commands nowhere near that kind of support. It has participated in six parliamentary elections.  Its highest tally was 12% of votes and 6% of MPs — that was in 1991.  In the most recent election, in 2008, it got 4% of votes and less than 1% of MPs.  Its average over all elections: 6% of votes, 3% of MPs.  Even if everyone voting for Jamaat swears by it — and we know that people vote for all sorts of reasons, and not just because they swear by the politicians — 25% seems wide off the mark.

So that’s error number two.

But these are factual errors, gaffes.  We shouldn’t read too much into them.

Perhaps.  But then again, these gaffes signify some deeper maladies.

If LK Advani or Narendra Modi or some other chest thumping Hindutva type said this, one would have excused it as the feverish rantings of ultra-nationalists.  But it was Dr Singh, whose reputation in the global stage is one of towering intellect providing sober tales, not sabre rattling.  That supposedly intelligent, sensible Indians might have such basic blind spots with regards to Bangladesh should send a shiver down the spine of any Bangladeshi — pro or anti Indian.

And that takes me to the next error in that para.  While Jamaat commands the support of nowhere near a quarter of Bangladesh, many (perhaps even most) of politically active / conscious Bangladeshis harbour a sense of apprehension about India.  And no, this is not limited to Jamaatis or ISI agents.

Consider these comments by Shahidul Alam:

Shahidul Alam is not a fundamentalist in the clutches of the ISI.  He is a card carrying member of the left.  He has been active in, or supportive of, most progressive causes fought for in contemporary Bangladesh.  He would probably be considered a heretic by the jihadis who are really in the ISI’s pay.

And he was speaking at a talk show aired by Channel I, one of the most secular, liberal media outlets in the country.

Contra Dr Singh, it’s not only fundamentalists and ISI agents in Bangladesh who don’t care much for India.

Not only does Dr Singh appear to have no idea that people like Shahidul Alam are sceptic about India, he seems to have no idea whatsoever about what really aggravates Bangladeshis about India.  If he did, he would have acknowledged the border killings, he would have known that much more than anything else, it’s this photo that had not only shocked and angered most Bangladeshis, but was also discussed around the world, from the Guardian to the Foreign Policy.

Of course, Dr Singh didn’t mention the trigger happy BSF at all.  Instead, he talked about how generous his government has been towards Bangladesh with the $1 billion loan.

Let’s put this loan into context.

Bangladesh’s economy has been booming for the past decade, and the country is hobbled with infrastructure bottleneck — spend an hour in Dhaka and you’ll know it.  The Awami League promised massive infrastructure building in the 2008 election.  To pay for the power plants, expressways and bridges, it has borrowed between one and three billion each from South Korea, China, Turkey and the IMF/WB since coming to power in 2009 .  The Indian loans are nothing special in the scheme of things here.

And the Indian loans are not only relatively expensive, but also, almost all of the money will have to be spent on Indian firms and goods.  Some generosity.

But wait, it gets more interesting.

The Indian Foreign Minister, SM Krishna, is scheduled to visit Bangladesh soon.  As it happens, Mr Krishna has been accused of corruption regarding lines of credit extended by Indian to neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh:

The controversy (the [Ministry of External Affairs] has scarcely ever been dogged by the C-word) revolves around the award of contracts for projects and the line of credit, worth a few billions of rupees, extended to neighbouring countries, particularly Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and in Africa. This is said to have led to the shifting out of joint secretary T.S. Tirumurti, who till recently headed the Bangladesh-Sri Lanka-Myanmar-Maldives division (commonly known as BSM)…

But soon enough, what had earlier just smelt fishy now began to toss up evidence of the actual corruption. A few days after [the construction of a housing project in Sri Lanka through an Indian line of credit] was given the green signal, senior officials from the other two public sector entities called the BSM enquiring whether the [Ministry] expected a cut from the project. When asked for reasons, PSU officials disclosed that a businessman, claiming to be close to [the Foreign Minister’s advisor], was demanding a cut. The BSM division promptly replied that its expectations were a “zero cut” from the housing project, and the businessman was asked to buzz off…

MEA officials counter that [a Joint Secretary was removed] because he would have insisted on stringent scrutiny of another line of credit pending in Bangladesh, where India is scheduled to build a railway line. (A line of credit is an MEA programme which has India finance a project in another country, with 85 per cent of it executed by Indian companies.)

Despite what Dr Singh may think, Bangladesh can get along perfectly well without the Indian line of credit.  And, if it turns out that the money of Bangladeshi taxpayers — it’s a loan, which will be repaid with interest by the Bangladeshi taxpayers — is going to fuel corruption in India, then it would probably be better to cancel the line of credit altogether.

Of course, this tragedy of error ended with the damning para erased from the official website,  That is the kind of stuff one would expect from a country that has the words People’s Democracy in its name.  Sad to see it in a real democracy that we in Bangladesh would like to look up to.

(A version of this piece was first posted in Kafila. This post has benefitted from contribution by my fellow bloggers Dhakashohor and Tacit).


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The India connection « Mukti said, on August 9, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    […] (here and here — also see this post).  A few weeks ago, it was Manmohan Singh’s weird comments.  Are the two […]

  2. Divided Bengal « Mukti said, on August 17, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    […] often contended that Bangladesh is not much understood in India — I give you the ramblings of Manmohan Singh and Jagdish Bhagwati as exhibits.  Perhaps Bangladesh is not understood in West Bengal — the […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: