Begum come, Begum go

India’s inexplicable decision to host Khaleda Zia

The Bangladesh Prime Minister’s state visit was important and holds out prospects of greater bilateral co-operation. We are, of course, talking about her trip to Islamabad in February 2006. Her trip to New Delhi in March 2006 is a different story altogether.

India-Bangladesh relations have shown a steady decline since she became prime minister, for the second time, in 2001. In addition to long-unresolved issues of illegal immigration and Bangladesh’s sheltering of terrorists, two new problems arose during this period. First, Bangladesh has become a new hub for Pakistani-directed terrorism against India. Second, there has been an increase both in violent actions against Indian citizens and institutions in Bangladesh as well as frequent fire-fights between troops guarding the border. Not only was Begum Khaleda Zia’s government unsympathetic to Indian concerns during her entire term, her government was openly hostile to even their expression by the Indian government. And so resolute has been her government’s anti-India orientation that it has stuck to policy positions that have resulted in damage to Bangladesh’s own economic interests.

So visiting India, Bangladesh’s most important trading partner, at the fag end of her term as prime minister can hardly be seen as an exercise aimed at improving bilateral relations. It may help her own political interests in the context of Bangladesh’s electoral politics. From an Indian perspective, it cannot be anything but yet another act of disdain directed at an stronger antagonist. Even the President of the United States found time to visit New Delhi before she did (and they both came to power at about the same time).

But why did India even agree to host her? The decision to do so, it appears, was not without debate. It appears that it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who not only consented to hosting her, but also decided in favour of according it the highest protocol – that of a ‘state visit’, with all the red-carpets and guards-of-honour. It has also been argued that it India’s policy is to deal with whoever is in power in its neighbouring countries. That does not mean rolling out the red-carpet indiscriminately. And surely that does not mean King Gyanendra will next take the salute at Rashtrapati Bhavan? It is understandable (though questionable) that the Indian government refrains from the robust use of force to secure its interests in relations with its neighbours. But it is baffling that the Indian government has discarded the robust use of diplomatic protocol to signal its perspective. It takes heads deeply buried in the sand to believe that the red carpet for Khaleda Zia made a dent in Bangladeshi public opinion towards India?

That she did not intend to achieve anything of consequence was clear from the failure of the two countries to reach agreement on several of the key economic issues, including the treaty on investment protection. Neither is it clear that Bangladesh will allow land-transit between West Bengal and the North Eastern states of India. And even as the Bangladeshi delegation was flying out of New Delhi, its security forces were firing at Indian posts in West Bengal’s North Dinajpur district.

There is a lot of room for improvement of trade, economic and social ties with Bangladesh. Engagement in this areas will certainly be a win-win for both countries. Yet it is unclear how such an engagement is possible as long as Bangladesh pursues a determined anti-India policy. Jihadi terrorism directed against India – and all recent attacks on Indian cities have a Bangladeshi link – is the new elephant in the room. The thrust of Indian policy should be towards compelling the government of Bangladesh to forcefully address India’s concerns in this regard. Begum Khaleda Zia’s party is not favourably disposed towards accommodating India’s concerns. Accomodating her in New Delhi, was therefore an act of misplaced generosity. It may yet prove to be one of diplomatic masochism.