Political lessons of the prime minister's India visit
The details published about the official talks held during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's India visit once again reflect a picture of the strong relations that exist between the two neighbours. Even in the joint statement issued a day after the meeting between the two prime ministers, there was nothing other than political pledges.
After the formalities and hospitalities extended to the prime minister, talks on various bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest were followed by the signing of seven memoranda of understanding. The MOUs were signed on withdrawal of water from the common river Kushiyara, training of Bangladesh's railway workers in India, Indian assistance in Bangladesh Railway's IT system, training and skills enhancement programme for Bangladesh judicial officers in India, agreement between India's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) for cooperation in science and technology, cooperation and expansion in space technology, and broadcast cooperation between Prasar Bharati and Bangladesh Television (BTV).
Over the last few days the Indian media has published all sorts of analysis and opinions on the visit, the bottom line of which is that India should not disappoint Bangladesh. These Indian analysts have basically tried to express their confidence in prime minister Sheikh Hasina by giving her credit for improving, expanding and deepening relations with India. In his piece on 'Sheikh Hasina visit: Why India should be grateful to Bangladesh PM', published in Indian Express, Jaideep Saikia wrote that Delhi should take extra measures to strengthen ties due to the contribution to suppressing fundamentalism and Indian insurgents. In the Firstpost, Abhijit Majumdar called for extending economic facilities, saying that if something tangible and meaningful was provided during Sheikh Hasina's visit, that would not only help her, but would also help India's image which was presently under attack in Bangladesh.
On 4 September, Parul Chandra wrote in the Deccan Herald that with her official visit to India possibly the last one before the 2023 election in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina will need to show substantive outcomes to her domestic constituency. The next day Anirban Bhaumik wrote in the same newspaper that Hasina's Awami League, which is accused by opposition parties to be excessively friendly to New Delhi, obviously needs more, so that it wins the next parliamentary elections, reaping the political dividends of construction of infrastructure, welfare programme and economic growth. However, Anirban Bhaumik also mentioned that a day before her Delhi trip, Sheikh Hasina inaugurated a bridge over Kocha river for which Beijing provided nearly USD 69 million, pointing out to Delhi the importance of strategic relations with China.
Indian analysts are placing importance on this trip of prime minister Sheikh Hasina in view of the coming elections and have urged the leadership in Delhi to provide tangible assistance to Bangladesh. Some of them have even portrayed Awami League's main opposition party BNP as being backed by Pakistan. In doing so, they have overlooked the risk of instigating a counter narrative. They have also overlooked the fact that this is demeaning the voting rights of Bangladesh's people. Then again, where our own foreign minister has disgraced the country by seeking India's help to keep the government in the power, there's hardly any point in blaming the arrogance of outside analysts.
During the prime minister's trip, the coal-fired Rampal power plant was inaugurated. Other than the MoU signed for the sharing of the Kushiyara river waters, the time spent by the two prime ministers for the signing of the remaining MoUs was simply of token value and this could have been done on any other level of the government. Signing of an agreement for cooperation between Bangladesh Television and Doordarshan or the MoU for the training of railway workers were hardly matters that had to wait for the presence of the topmost leadership of the governments.
It is clear from the statements of both sides that there were no expectations regarding the sharing of Teesta waters, an issue that has been pending for almost a dozen years now. The Deccan Herald wrote having to approve the Teesta water agreement due to India's domestic politics, Delhi turned its attention to the interim agreement for sharing the waters of Kushiyara. At the press briefing, both the prime ministers expressed hope regarding a resolution to other of the 54 common rivers.
While the Indian press expressed support for the leadership of Bangladesh's prime minister, it was the India Today that made headlines of Sheikh Hasina's praise for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's leadership. Its headlines read, 'With PM Modi at helm, India and Bangladesh will resolve all issues" Sheikh Hasina.' Prime minister Modi expressed his hope, saying that by the expansion of the communications system or increasing connectivity, both the economies would be able to work together closer. Needless to say, India is reaping the most benefits from this connectivity.
This summit meeting between the two top leaders marked the thirteenth meeting. About the meeting, the media was informed by both sides that outside of signing the seven MOUs, there had been assurances of assistance in the supply of energy and essential commodities. Our state minister for foreign affairs termed this assurance as progress, saying that India had political commitment in this regard. The state minister said there had been talks on importing diesel and gas from India, and there were also discussions on taking to Bangladesh the hydroelectricity being produced by several Indian companies in Nepal. The matter of supplying commodities imported from India to Bangladesh during crises, after meeting India's own demands and in specific quantities, was also discussed. According to the Indian foreign minister, the matter has been discussed for some time now. In other words, talks will continue and outside of India's political commitment, no progress has been made in these matters.
It is shocking that in the joint statement satisfaction was expressed over the decrease in border killings. Instead of expressing regret and providing compensation for the killing of civilians on the basis of suspicion and with no trial, satisfaction has been expressed. That is distressing.
The discussions held with the private sector on trade, commerce and investment and the prime minister's assurances to attract Indian industrialists, undoubtedly has important significance. But on the government level, what has been actually attained other than the larger neighbour's political commitment and assurances of further discussions? As for a speedy solution to the Rohingya crisis for the sake of the much-touted regional geopolitical stability, what has been gained other than the same old assurances? There is a prevalent perception that we give India more and get less. Surely no one had expected that this visit would change that perception in any way.
Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist