On BNP’s new India policy
I was very happy with the US election result, not just because Barack Obama was re-elected — though that too, but because the result vindicated people like Nate Silver. Silver and others like him predicted the election result very accurately, based on a detailed reading of polls and ‘fundamentals’ data. And according to them, the contours of the election remained pretty constant throughout the year. But they were pilloried by pundits and bloviators who saw gamechangers and momentums every week. As a ‘facts and figures’ guy, I was firmly in Mr Silver’s camp, and I am glad that he won.
Yes, if it’s not obvious, I try to be as much about facts and figures as possible. This doesn’t mean my analysis is free of judgment or bias — not only is that impossible, but also, hopefully, the readers care about my opinion. But I feel strongly that those opinions should be based on something solid. In economic analysis, that means looking at the data. In the realm of politics, that means looking at what the players publicly promise or do.
I don’t have access to the corridors of power. Nor do I know the high and the mighty. So I cannot rely on the inside story from anyone, or base my analysis on the atmospherics. But most of the time, the detachment actually helps with the analysis. For example, back in January 2010, when most people were either ecstatic or apoplectic about the Bangladeshi Prime Minister trip to India, I parsed the Indo-Bangla joint communique and decided to ignore the hype.
I’ll let the reader judge how my analysis of Hasina Wajed’s India trip played out. Instead, let me talk about Khaleda Zia’s India trip. For those of you affected by the Hurricane Sandy or too busy following the US election, Bangladesh’s leader of the opposition visited India between 27 October and 3 November. The trip has got the Bangladeshi chattering classes talking. For a big picture analysis of what it means for our politics, I refer you to Zafar Sobhan, with whom I fully agree on this occasion. In a personal correspondence, he adds:
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t think India’s support for this government is that deep. If push comes to shove, they won’t bail them out, and perhaps that is all that BNP can ask for.
Okay, all that is good, but what about the fact-based analysis, you ask? Well, it’s a bit hard because opposition politicians don’t get to write communiques. But turns out, we can still analyse BNP’s India policy by parsing some publicly available documents.
A few weeks before the trip, the BNP chairperson published an opinion piece in Strategic Analysis — journal of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, a think tank funded by the Indian Ministry of Defence. It is reasonable to make two assumptions. First, the article titled Bangladesh-India relations, challenges and prospects (I can’t find an ungated link, sorry) was widely read in India, and formed the basis of conversations between Mrs Zia and her hosts. Second, the article is not personal opinion of the Madam, but a reflection of BNP’s considered view on the India policy.
Given these assumptions, what can we say about the party’s new India policy?
Let’s go through the article para by para.
The first two just set the scene. The two countries have historical reasons to have good relations, but partly because of colonial legacy, and partly because of ‘forces in both our societies’ pushing ‘fear psychosis to perpetuate mutual suspicion’, things aren’t as good as they could be. The third para is where things get a bit interesting. Let me quote directly:
The major issues that agitate the public mind in Bangladesh are the sharing of the waters of our common rivers, killing of unarmed people in the border areas and the resolution of our boundary issues (one of the legacies of our colonised past). We must, at the same time, take into account the security concerns on both sides of the border and ensure that none shall be allowed to use our territories against the interest of the other.
Right. So India gives water and stop shooting, and Bangladesh makes sure there is no cross-border security threat. Okay, let’s read on.
The fourth para is pretty long, but the bottomline is that there is nothing ideological about the issues that affect Indo-Bangla relations, and given political will, all will be well.
Then we have three paragraphs under the subheading ‘Management of our borders’. Here, the British are blamed for creating a messy border and enclaves, which make cross-border movement of people difficult. Mrs Zia calls for immediate resolution of this ‘distortion’, respecting ‘ground realities’ and without displacing ‘people who have lived in those areas for generations’. Then she says something quite interesting:
We should both endeavour to simplify cross-border movement of people when they have an economic purpose.
There are prevailing international laws, conventions and practices that guide movement of people along international boundaries……. Killing of unarmed people on a regular basis is certainly not the answer.
This is a very nuanced, and practical, policy position. It’s easy to give a fiery speech about the criminal BSF killing people like birds at the border. Mrs Zia is not doing that. Rather, she is acknowledging that there is border demarcation issue, and that there are undocumented movement of people. But she is stressing that these can, and should, be resolved through non-violent means, including through simplification of procedures. Perhaps a visa-free border may well become a reality someday?
While the section on managing borders have some meaty ideas, the next two seem completely banal. Two paragraphs on ‘Cooperation for combating terrorism’ refer to SAARC protocols on the issue. And the two paragraphs on ‘Regional cooperation’ pays homage to Ziaur Rahman and calls for strengthening SAARC.
The next section is two paras under ‘Looking east and connectivity’. The money quote:
We now need to work to develop connectivity amongst us through a network of road, rail, air and sea lanes that will link South Asia with South East Asia and the Far East, all the way to China, Japan and Korea.
Looks like BNP has drunk the connectivity kool aid too.
And then there’s the final para — ‘Message for the people of India’ — friendship and understanding. No, she doesn’t break into Kumbaya.
So let’s summarise. She begins by saying three things matter to Bangladesh — water, border killing, boundary demarcation — while she acknowledges the security issues. Then she alludes to some concrete ideas about border killing and boundary issues before talking about SAARC and connectivity. Notice anything missing?
There is no section on water. In fact, the words Teesta or Tipaimukh or Farakka never appear in the article.
Recall the assumption that this is a carefully considered piece that was written ahead of the trip. Daily Star gives us a clue about who the party chief might have listened to in preparing it.
According to party insiders, the former army chief along with senior leaders Tariqul Islam, Moudud Ahmed, M Morshed Khan and Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury are among those who played a vital role to “repair” the party’s relations with India.
And consider the people who accompanied her to India: Standing Committee Member Tariqul Islam, her Advisors Riaz Rahman, Sabih Uddin Ahmed, Vice Chairman Shamser Mobin Chowdhury, former MPs Khaleda Rabbani, Mosaddek Ali Falu, her Press Secretary Maruf Kamal Khan, Private Secretary Saleh Ahmed and photographer Nuru Uddin Ahmed.
It would be quite remarkable if all these people forgot water.
Indeed, we can guess that the BNP chief quite deliberately didn’t push on the water issue. Consider whom she met in India — president, prime minister, foreign minister, opposition leader, senior bureaucrats. But not Mamata Banerjee or any regional leaders. And these leaders are needed for any traction on the water issue.
Here is a conjecture: BNP figures until political landscape changes in Paschim Banga, there is no point in banging on about water, better to focus on things that can be done through New Delhi, like border and people movement. If that conjecture is right, then it is a far more mature policy stance than what the Awami League government has adopted.
Now, water is not the only thing that the BNP chief raises but doesn’t follow through. She has nothing to say about the security issues other than ‘none shall be allowed to use our territories against the interest of the other’. But then again, what more is there to say? It is pretty clear that BNP promises to continue with the Awami League policy of zero tolerance for Indian extremists (North Eastern secessionists, jihadis, Maoists).
Finally, BNP seems to be trying to woo Bangladeshi minorities. Of course, this is a very positive development. But it is still interesting to note that Khaleda Zia visited Ajmer Sharif, and ignored Calcutta. Should one draw the conclusion that BNP has no time for Dui Bangla bonhomie, even as it affirms Bangladesh’s Muslim heritage?