A new approach is needed to further Bangladesh-India relations
The realist perspective on international relations have been quite dominant till date since the early 20th century in shaping the minds of foreign policy makers of both pre and post-colonial states.
It was expounded, under this set of ideas, that self-interested modern states, represented by their national governments, are the principal agents in the sphere of international relations.
These ideas and few other later ones, however, failed to solve many puzzles of international relations.
One of the unique examples of such puzzles is the stake of a constituent province of a federal state with regards to its foreign relations, especially in the regional and sub-regional context.
Foreign relations is a subject of the federal government, and yet often some federal governments are unable to exercise that authority in certain occasions due to unique regional and sub-regional realities and have to settle for a de facto compromise with an assertive province which happens to have a stake in this.
The West Bengal factor in Bangladesh-India relations is a case in point. This brings up the larger question of the modus operandi of the foreign relations of India, especially when it comes to its South Asian neighbours. Similar confusion and dilemma also persist in India-Sri Lanka relations with regards to Tamil Nadu and India-Nepal relations with regards to Bihar.
The de facto compromise
The de facto compromise that the India union government has settled for actually stems more from the internal political convenience and not due to any well thought-out policy based on any historical or contextual analysis of relevant factors. These factors are quite complex, and vary from sub-region to sub-region of the Indian sub-continent.
Despite the less effective de facto compromise, the prime tension in many of the key issues of Bangladesh-India relations lurk in not taking Kolkata aboard by Delhi and Dhaka. For example, in important issues like the water of common rivers of India and Bangladesh, sub-regional trade and connectivity, security, and cross border crime, etc — most other Indian provinces don’t have much at stake, but West Bengal and few others from north and northeast India do.
The similarity of culture and language between Bangladesh and West Bengal and mutual empathy, to a certain degree, is a positive influence in the complexity of the relationship quotient
The similarity of culture and language between Bangladesh and West Bengal is a positive influence in the complexity of the relationship quotient.
Moreover, some India-Bangladesh issues have sway on the popularity of the government of the day, and have the potential to influence election outcomes to some degree. It’s truer for Bangladesh and West Bengal than the Indian central government, and there are contradictions of interests, especially between the Indian Union and the West Bengal government.
For example, the Indian government’s position has been to make a formal agreement of sharing Teesta river water with Bangladesh within the bigger scheme of cooperation on wider issues and strategic good relations — especially in the areas of security, trade, and connectivity.
A sticky situation
Our government has been under immense pressure domestically to deliver on the Teesta issue for quite some time now, and it made it a key agenda in Bangladesh-India engagements.
On the contrary, the West Bengal government considered a proposed Teesta water deal against the interest of the northern part of the province — hence the current stalemate. The central Indian government can impose the deal on West Bengal, but that risks unpopularity for the government in the province.
A way out could have been that the Indian government compensates West Bengal adequately to make it agree to the deal. But it seems that the BJP administration doesn’t see much political benefit in such compensation, and it fears that the credit will go to Mamata Banerjee (who is a staunch political rival in the province the BJP wants on their side by the next elections).
But everything mustn’t be dictated by parochial, domestic, political calculations; and here comes the question of leadership and long term mutual dividends.
Compensating West Bengal for the Teesta water agreement is clearly a right option, and it’s the responsibility of the Indian government if they really want to build genuinely good relations with Bangladesh.
On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee is not our foe, and often she has recognised what independent Bangladesh has achieved. She is also an avid advocate of more devolution of power to provinces within Indian Union. And thus, a tripartite compromise could still be on the cards.
At times, it seems that Dhaka is too obsessed with treating Delhi as equal partners, and in the process neglects Kolkata. This approach reflects copybook diplomacy of protocol-mania and not pragmatic foreign policy.
Connectivity, not negligence
Dhaka needs to be warmer to Kolkata. West Bengal is a huge province of 90 million people, and the linguistic-cultural partner of Bangladesh. Also, there should be new and natural models of engagements in the sub-regional context of the more connected world.
For example, in Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) initiative, China has allowed its Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to deal with other member nations ie Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand under the banner of the forum directly on many issues.
Such natural models should be tried in eastern sub-region of South Asia.
West Bengal ought to have a special place in the minds of Bangladeshi leadership and foreign policy makers — and only that new approach will have the potency to advance Bangladesh-India relations further and facilitate the growth of schemes in the area like BBIN sub-regional Initiative and BCIM growth corridor, where Bangladesh and West Bengal have central roles to play as potential major beneficiaries.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a freelance contributor on politics, society, and international relations. Currently, he works for BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Dhaka, Bangladesh.