Interview: Debapriya Bhattacharya

'Relations between two countries cannot remain hostage to any ruling party’

Debapriya Bhattacharya

The Centre of Policy Dialogue (CPD), a non-government think-tank, has been playing a pivotal role on behalf of Bangladesh’s civil society in taking relations between Bangladesh and India ahead. CPD and the Indian research institute Ananta Centre recently arranged a dialogue in Delhi to discuss the future of relations between the two countries. CPD’s distinguished fellow Debapriya Bhattacharya, in an interview with Prothom Alo’s head of English online, Ayesha Kabir, spoke about a possible roadmap for relations between the two close South Asian neighbours.

Q :

CPD and Ananta Centre held a Bangladesh-India strategic dialogue in Delhi in June. What was the context of the dialogue?

Bangladesh’s good relationship with India is not just because of the liberation war. It is also extremely important for present and future development, peace and security. It was from this perspective that CPD has been endeavouring to make the issue of Bangladesh-India relations a continued process of constructive and positive discussions. Given the manner in which people are viewing the Bangladesh-India relationship today, this effort may seem farfetched. But amid adverse conditions, this task can be carried out, based on the review of relevant facts and policies. It is with this objective in mind that CPD had been working with various think tanks in India. It was a part of this initiative that the two-day discussion with Ananta Centre was held. This is the second round of dialogue with them.

Q :

Was there any particular objective for the discussions this time?

The reason behind the discussions at this particular time is that both countries are headed towards elections. That is why they can go through a review of bilateral relations on the eve of the elections. After the elections, there can be discussions on the possible evolution of these relations. In other words, we have reached a point in time for a sort of introspective look at the relations between the two countries.

Over the past decade, our bilateral ties have expanded and deepened significantly. In this context, it has become important to look into whether balance is being maintained in the shared interests of the two countries. Another important factor is to look into the feasibility of the continuity and predictability of this relationship after the elections. It needs to be seen if the achievements of this relationship can be made sustainable and if there is scope to carry out reforms in this area if required. It is necessary to evaluate whether there will be any changes in bilateral relations in the case of any possible political transition or whether any change in the political scenario will challenge these relations.  

Q :

So this is not any coincidence that these discussions have been arranged to coincide with the forthcoming elections?

There is always context to the discussions when these take place. Our first discussion with Ananta Centre took place virtually. The topic of discussion at the time was tackling Covid and the experience of cooperation in the post-Covid times involving vaccines, various drugs and medical equipment, oxygen, ambulances and so on. We hope to have our third dialogue in Dhaka next year.

Q :

There had been speculations that after the BJP won in the 2014 elections, Bangladesh-India relations may undergo a change. After all, the Awami League’s relations with Congress were historically tried and tested. But after power changed hands in India, the relations between the two countries advanced.

I think that after the 1971 liberation war, there have been three major achievements in Bangladesh-India relations. The first is the 1996 Ganges water sharing treaty. The second achievement is reflected in the decision taken in 2009, i.e., not to allow the use of each other's territory to disrupt the peace and security of the other country. The third concerns implementation of the land boundary agreement protocol in 2015.

Bangladesh signed these historic treaties in 1996, 2009 and 2015 during the rule of three different governments in India. That means regardless of party or ideologies, India’s political stance regarding its policies pertaining to its relationship with Bangladesh is strong and clear. This is very positive for the relationship. But such a stand regarding relationship with our neighbour is absent in our country. It must also be noted that all three times that these significant achievements were made, Awami League had been in government.

If a democratic state wants to have fruitful and effective relations with its neighbour, it is essential for the ruling party and the opposition in the political sphere to reach a consensus. Having a broad political consensus regarding bilateral cooperation does not mean there cannot be differences regarding the details of planning and implementation.

Q :

So, you feel that the political consensus that exists in India regarding a continuity to relations, is absent in Bangladesh and that this is a serious problem?

The political consensus that is required to carry on a continuity of relations with India, is absent in our country. In 2014 when BJP came to power instead of Congress, were we not apprehensive? But we adjusted ourselves through the dynamism of the relationship. Awami League may have leant towards Congress, but they later adjusted themselves with BJP. A country may well have a penchant for any particular party of another country, but in democratic circumstances, the people of a country elect the government of that country. So, no matter who may be in power, they must have the mindset to take the relationship ahead. The relationship between two countries cannot be held hostage by any ruling party. This matter is vital in the context of our relationship.

In this context, it is important to involve other stakeholders in building up effective political consensus regarding relations with the neighbour. If not, the positive aspects of the relations will not be sustainable.

Q :

How important will the issue of bilateral relations be in the elections of both countries?

Will our bilateral relations be a part of the election debate when Bangladesh or India goes to the elections? I think the issues of bilateral trade and commerce, security of the lives of the people along the border, or sharing of common river water, will be raised in pre-election discussions. Also, the politico-economic significance of the various geopolitical and geostrategic alliances that are emerging will be taken into consideration. There will be a focus, particularly on China’s role in the region.

Globally speaking, inter-state relations based on values have been replaced with relations based on give and take. We have entered so-called identity politics. When ‘we’ is replaced by ‘you’ and ‘I’, then various identities will emerge in the respective countries, basically based on the religious identity of the greater population. Why can this be an important election issue? We must keep in mind that the religious majority in one country is the religious minority in the other. And the religious minority in one country is the religious majority in the neighbouring country. If there is no understanding and sensitivity in this regard, then the entire relationship gets ensnared in complexities. Election equations instigate such complexities further.

The mindset of Bangladesh’s political groups regarding an expected evolution in relationship with India is not clear. That is why Bangladesh must bring the unsettled and prevailing issues in Bangladesh-India relations into the election debate. When the political system for the election in our country becomes clearer, then the respective parties must clearly highlight in their election manifestos their recommendations to render relations with India fruitful.

The government must also present in a transparent manner how we want to take bilateral relations ahead. They must take others into this discussion and recognise them as partners in the process. The government must not take it for granted that the relationship with India is solely their achievement.

Q :

What new factors may emerge in the days ahead regarding future relations?

India’s role is very important in the development of Bangladesh’s relations with countries close to it, like Nepal and Bhutan. That is why relations with India must be seen from a sub-regional angle. We have opened all sorts of routes to India to facilitate travel from one region to the other. Yet we cannot transport goods to Nepal or Bhutan. We are not being able to import power bilaterally. A balance must be brought in here.

Then there is the matter of loan agreements with India. Why has it not been possible to spend even half of USD800 crore under the credit agreement as yet? Is it held up because of a lack of planning? Or is Bangladesh not enthusiastic enough about utilising this loan? These matters need fact-based deliberations.

Along with the Rohingya refugee problem, we are now facing issues related to Kuki-Chin. These issues impact bilateral relations in many ways. Moreover, the entry of a third party in the scene further complicates the matters.

We must desist from viewing bilateral relations from narrow political angles.

Q :

How important is it to reassess Bangladesh-India relations before the elections of the two countries?

No matter which party comes to power in either country, they will not be able to take the country to the highest point of development if they disregard, neglect or ignore Bangladesh-India relations. That is why I believe the issue is to be openly discussed before the elections. Others outside of the government must be included in these discussions. They must be given partnership in the process. The Indian government has benefitted by involving its local stakeholders in the process. We too must take the relations ahead in a unified manner.

There is concern in India over the issue of political change in Bangladesh. If we see it from the angle of India’s security, this concern is understandable. It must be assessed in light of the consignment of the 10 trucks of arms or the three achievements mentioned earlier. But if we remain stuck in the past, then there is no way we can go ahead.

We must also remember that India has an image problem in Bangladesh. The lack of trust that prevails here cannot be denied.

We must determine the red lines of our relations to proceed ahead. These boundaries in no way can be crossed. Three issues may be mentioned here. First, one country’s territory cannot be used to disrupt the peace, security and stability of the other country. Secondly, multilateral cooperation must be kept up in the ongoing and potential trade, commerce and communications, etc. Thirdly, the safety and wellbeing of the religious minorities in the respective countries must be ensured.

Q :

You brought up the issue of give and take. You also mentioned a lack of trust. What is to be done to take relations between the two countries ahead?

The lack of trust must be resolved. There is a need for a creative reassessment of the relationship between the two countries. The deficiencies in relation must be addressed and a balance must be brought. These relations must be brought to the fore as one of the major tools in Bangladesh’s development efforts. That is why it is important to have open-minded fact-based discussions on the various facets of these relations before the elections. 

Q :

Thank you.

Thank you.

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* The interview was originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for English edition by Ayesha Kabir