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Time for reflection

23By Israfil Khosru

Connectivity is a must to facilitate trade and enhance it too, but the conditions should not be lop-sided to the extent that it does not become mutually beneficial
As I write this piece, the mania surrounding Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka would have died down a bit. It was no doubt a whirlwind affair and had all the ingredients to make a descent thriller movie look relatively tame. It had suspense, a sense of mysticism, and a whole lot of action.
Prior to the tour, it was aptly announced that Modi would be meeting the BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia. However, the honourable foreign minister of Bangladesh seemed to get the wrong memo as he rather volubly stated that there was “no scope” of such a meet. Since the meeting did take place, the lone way to save the honourable minister from the ignominy of such a gaffe would be to simply assume that he did not get a memo at all.
On a brighter note, this accounted for a high-octane drama and kept the people engaged. To top it all off, the suspense regarding the contents of the BNP chairperson’s one-to-one meeting with Modi, which extended to nearly 15 minutes, has given birth to further speculation and ambiguity. The party still remains tight-lipped about the scope of discussion and is probably justified in doing so.
If there is one thing this particular meeting signifies, it is simply the fact that Narendra Modi rose above the political undercurrents that prevail in Bangladesh and proceeded with an approach of all-out engagement.
There is one key message he articulated with much candor in his final speech, and that is what our policy-makers should ponder on with urgency. While he played to the gallery by highlighting an array of achievements by Bangladesh as a country and its individuals, his vision for India to become a key global player by regional integration of South Asia was quite appositely presented.
He clearly wants Bangladesh to jump onto this bandwagon and his multifarious engagement clearly shows that he is not in it for the short term. The falling through of the Land Boundary Agreement can be deemed to be a part of a confidence-building measure, but it was the right gesture nonetheless.
While connectivity and regional integration took centre stage in Modi’s speech, he did not seem to guarantee equity in such an endeavour. However, it is not his place to extend a guarantee of any sort either. That task lies with the government of Bangladesh. A total of 22 agreements were signed between India and Bangladesh this time. Significantly, among the agreements were the “Exchange of instruments of ratification of 1974 Land Boundary Agreement and its 2011 protocol” and “Exchange of letters on modalities for implementation of 1974 Land Boundary Agreement and its 2011 protocol.”
These agreements mark a forward movement in the direction of an eventual exchange of enclaves between both the countries, and the efforts on both sides need to be lauded so far. However, a bulk of the remaining agreements touches on the issue of connectivity and that is where the modalities remain vague. Connectivity automatically relates to the issue of transit, be it via inland water or land.
When we discuss transit, it is absolutely imperative that the ambiguous use of trans-shipment and corridor be clarified.  Transit is a pre-independence phenomenon and it has evolved over a period of time, but a close view of history shows that there was never much transparency in this particular matter.
Connectivity is a must to facilitate trade and enhance it too, but the conditions should not be lop-sided to the extent that it does not become mutually beneficial. In order to garner public confidence, a credible cost-benefit analysis of transit should be made available in the public forum to garner confidence. Failure to do so will sustain the feeling of suspicion that exists within the vast majority of the Bangladeshi population, and could even magnify it manifold.
However, from a purely diplomatic point of view, the issue of trade with India should be met with pragmatism.  There are far too many naysayers when it comes to our relationship with India. We are ever sceptical about any forward movement in our relations and constantly fall back on history to prove our value judgments. We don’t care if the trade deficit with China becomes more yawning, but we have an issue if it happens with India.
Equitable trade with India will not wash away the deficit simply because of the sheer size of the Indian economy (both in terms of geography and market), which gives it a comparative advantage on a greater number of products. We have to ensure that the nature of our trade with India does not lead to exploitation, and enables us to extract the benefits we richly deserve. There was high expectation in Dhaka that there would be a new announcement about the visa regime and some forward movement on Teesta as well. It can be understood why the Teesta issue hasn’t come through, but the status quo on the visa issue is a bit unanticipated.
Surprisingly, no clarification has been provided in this regard given that a progressive visa regime is also a pre-condition to ensure greater connectivity and develop people-to-people relationships. Yet again, if this issue is not addressed almost immediately, we will have yet another stumbling block in the trust building process.
It must be mentioned that the Modi PR machinery did a wonderful job in managing the hype during the visit, but the post-visit coverage was quite negative. The Indian side could have given adequate feelers to prepare the audience here about the Teesta issue and the GOB did not indulge in any public engagement exercise to explain adequately where it currently stands in the negotiation process to appease the public.
Expectation management therefore remains a major challenge in Indo-Bangladesh relations, and without a more pragmatic approach, it simply cannot be done. The issue of border killing remains a contentious issue and perhaps the Modi government could deploy a task force to comprehensively examine the matter. Unless it is solved, it will remain a major roadblock towards enhanced ties between Delhi and Dhaka.
However, such a proposal should be pro-actively brought forward in diplomatic discourse to ensure resolution, and a major responsibility lies with the GOB in terms of initiation.
The Modi visit was heavy on optics and not unlike any of the SAARC capitals he visited. However, in the case of Bangladesh, his initiative of a “full spectrum political outreach” must be lauded. While Narendra Modi’s vision of a strong South Asian region with India leading the pack is well-justified, it is time for us to realise that promoting and defending our national interest should be at the core of any relationship.
But it should be guided by pragmatic realism and not historical animosity. We cannot afford to be seen as a source of security threat to India, and hence, engagement is a must and we have a lot to gain from that in the long run. A regional growth stands to benefit us greatly given that we are well-prepared and manage to dictate our terms with authority. That can only be done once there is clarity of thought and facts.
The Modi bandwagon is not necessarily a bad thing, and Bangladesh might as well be a part of it as long as our flavour and voice are well-preserved.