Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary in New Delhi: Why Now?

01 Apr, 2014    ·   4363

Harun ur Rashid analyses the purpose of Bangladesh's Foreign Secretary's India visit that came at a time when the incumbent government is playing a caretaker role

On the invitation of his Indian counterpart, the Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, Shahidul Haque, visited New Delhi for three days from March 19. His meetings reportedly included the Indian external affairs minister, the Indian national security advisor, and secretaries of various ministries. It may be recalled that the purpose of the Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh's one-day visit to Dhaka on December 4 – that India would prefer an Awami League (AL)-led government in power – was somehow made public.

The Bangladeshi foreign secretary’s visit came at a time when the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government is in a caretaker mode – prior to the Indian general elections scheduled for April and May – and therefore no agreement or Memorandum of Understanding could be signed. Moreover, decisions on all pending issues can only be taken by the incoming government.

Meanwhile, if there were urgent concerns for Bangladesh such as a drastic fall in the levels of water in the Teesta river water in Bangladesh; or border killings of Bangladeshis; or difficulties for Bangladeshis in booking hotels in India, Dhaka can hardly expect concrete decisions by meeting with top bureaucrats in New Delhi because they perform only routine jobs during this period.

At the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation meeting in Myanmar in February, the Indian prime minister reportedly conveyed to his Bangladeshi counterpart that the signing of the Teesta Water Sharing agreement would be “difficult.”

Today, Bangladesh has become peaceful but the undercurrents of political unrest still exist in the country. Although the current government is conducting its business in a normal manner, it cannot be denied that the government is on a weaker turf vis-à-vis democratic principles as enshrined in the constitution. Furthermore, several AL stalwarts including ministers are of the opinion that the current situation is not politically normal.

Everyone in the country and outside knows that the January 5 general elections were non-inclusive, and that it was billed as a constitutional necessity. The Western countries have reservations on the non-inclusive election and want another inclusive election with participation of all parties so as to reflect the will of the people. However, India, Russia, China, and Japan have conducted business as usual with the current Hasina government for their own interests.

The Western countries appear to maintain routine links with the government but their views on certain issues, such as GSP make evident their tough stance, and the recent statements by US Senator Robert Menendez, Chair, Foreign Relations Committee, and Jean Lambert, Leader, Visiting EU team, make it evident that the West remains unsatisfied on progress on the safety and security of garment industry workers. The Bangladeshi Commerce Minister sensed their opinions and termed it as “disappointing.”

Interestingly, some observers believe that in reality, the West is signaling the government to hold an inclusive parliamentary election, maybe within a year, following a constructive dialogue with opposition parties.

The London-based Business Monitor International in its latest report has downgraded Bangladesh’s short term political risk rating as well as economic outlook due to persistent political unrest. It further stated that investors are adopting a “wait and see” approach.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country's main oppostion party, which boycotted the parliamentary elections in January, participated in the local elections in February and March; and by winning a large number of seats for the position of Chairperson in the local elections, it has demonstrated that it has not lost popular support among the citizens.

As for Bangladesh-India relations, ordinarily, foreign policy does not dramatically change with a change of the government because geopolitical and economic realities remain as they are; and especially with neighbouring countries. Also, since 2009 India has gained more vis-à-vis public perception in Bangladesh than vice versa. It is natural that India wants to ensure that the gains made in various areas in Bangladesh are not reversed.

In the coming months, three factors in India will be important for Bangladesh. First, the strengthening or weakening of the position of Mamata Banerjee, Leader, Trinamool Congress party and Chief Minister, West Bengal, after the election.  Second, if a coalition government consisting of third parties is formed in New Delhi. Third, if a BJP-led coalition can form a government at the centre.  In an event of the aforementioned political scenarios, India-Bangladesh bilateral relations would be different from what exists today.

Given the situation, the questions in the mind of the Bangladeshi people are:  why did the Indian foreign secretary invite her counterpart in New Delhi when it is evident that no progress can be made on unresolved bilateral issues with the caretaker government? Is there something else for which the invitation was extended?