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The question about who wants Rampal

  • Published at 12:01 am October 21st, 2016
The question about who wants Rampal

“Does India have the will power to say no to Hasina? I doubt it. The strategic community (majority of them) is eternally grateful to Hasina for taking action against the North East insurgents. Unless the Bangladesh government pulls out, India will not pull out. This is what I understood from my interaction here. As a government that would face election, Hasina should say no. Anyway, it has become chicken and egg theory” -- Smruti Pattanaik, Indian defence analyst

Smruti Pattanaik, an Indian defense analyst with first-hand experience of Bangladesh was responding to several queries about Indian involvement on Rampal, and even a few questions which were suggesting that Rampal was an act of hostile aggression by India.

This was on Facebook, and though that digital space is remarkably full of off-the-cuff remarks, this point raised has drawn attention. It is because we are used to blaming India at every step, not realising that we are also participating in many of the contentious projects. Rampal appears to have become an issue for all parties concerned. And if any country is to be blamed, it should be both.

Indians are not feeling very happy about all the blaming it is getting because, for them, the cost-benefit is not just economic, but strategic and security related as well. India can have many other similar projects elsewhere, and even if Rampal is very convenient for them, it is not the only option. It’s not even a mega project that will radically adjust India’s energy needs, so it’s one of the many it can choose.

But India’s main interest is increasingly that of security, and Bangladesh has been a key player in achieving that. As Pattanaik suggests, Bangladesh has delivered a significant security package by eliminating sanctuary to India’s rebellious North East insurgents, and the benefit is enormous in every way to her.

So, India would hardly want to step into an unpopular space in Bangladesh. And promoting a few billion dollars worth of an energy project makes little sense if in return the Indian brand in Bangladesh is weakened and consequently the security blanket is disturbed.

India also has a large number of its citizens involved in many sectors, and if India becomes vulnerable here due to the existence of a power plant, the socio-economic cost of departing Indians from Bangladesh due to heightened insecurity will be much greater compared to Rampal gains. India certainly wants to do business here, but India will never want a population that is hostile to it making security equations vulnerable.

Rampal: More gratitude than gain?

But can India refuse, as Smruti Pattanaik asks, given what Sheikh Hasina has helped India to gain, a rebel-diminished North East? Rampal is not a big deal for India, it’s a deal, but to Bangladesh, it’s a big fish. But while even six months back, Rampal was just a small lefty movement, it has become the most significant political project now. It’s not only a possible threat to the Sundarbans, it’s becoming one to India-Bangla relations even more. Can mainstream politics overcome the public perception that has now gained a firm footing here that the project will not be an undiluted advantage for Bangladesh?

The Rampal project was never a publicly visible project which was being built somewhere far away. But the dedicated resistance of the activists, rightly or wrongly, has turned it into a much bigger problem for the government. The authorities at first completely ignored the opposition to the project, then tried to counter it through technical discussions and the loyal media support it.

Next, it trashed the Rampal opponents as pro-Jamaat, and finally did the old lathi charge/tear gas routine on its procession. None, one is afraid, has worked very well for the government till date. It not only underestimated the stamina of the Rampal activists, but also saw them as just another opponent like the BNP.

Rampal is not Farakka

But BNP is a ragged party of geriatrics with declining public support and full of traditional posturing and bluster while the Oil and Gas Committee has much more public goodwill, though not necessarily active support.

But in the public political space, the activists look like a bunch of politicians we almost never see in Bangladesh, let alone expect. They are into a cause and not a party, not into power and money-making but development issues. Frankly, they also have no political structure, and even if the entire Left were to come together, they wouldn’t be able to make much of a difference. But faith in the activists is increasing at a pace never thought possible before, because they are considered clean and patriotic by many.

The police attack on the procession walking to hand over a memorandum to the Indian High Commission was more remindful of panic than concern over law and order

The police attack on the procession walking to hand over a memorandum to the Indian High Commission was more remindful of panic than concern over law and order. After all, the activists have no clout to call a hartal even, but it’s making the powers that be rather uneasy just by their presence.

Rampal is also not Farakka, because the barrage was constructed in India arbitrarily without any consideration for Bangladesh’s water rights. Rampal, on the other hand, is an environmentally controversial project which is happening inside Bangladesh as a joint activity. If Farakka victimised Bangladesh and created permanent anti-Indian feelings, how worthy can it be for India? Public perception increasingly sees it negatively rather than discuss the pro and contra arguments.

Rampal has gone beyond logic into the emotional space

In Bangladesh, political accountability practices are much less but in India it is much higher, where the consequences of supporting Rampal could become an issue if it leads to other issues like loss of security. While few in India know about Rampal, more people know about it than ever before here in Bangladesh.

It’s not a media issue in India, but it’s the biggest one in Bangladesh. Many support Rampal, and for good reasons. Many also are against it, though they may know less about the project. The point is, the argumentative space is largely over now and it’s a matter of collective emotions and it’s growing. That is why it’s something bigger than a controversial coal plant; it’s about public perception of what is right and wrong. And that is about politics, not development.

Hasina’s politicians, too rusty at national politics due to lack of practice, has not even had a chance to defend the cause, and the bureaucrats and technocrats, who are in charge of politics, never a very trusted community in town, has not effectively sold the case to the public. The government has been pushed by a ragtag band of volunteer activists never thought possible and it has made the political equations far more difficult.

The government’s prestige, will, and clout have all been put into the Rampal basket and to retreat or even reconsider Rampal would be considered a defeat and this government has not had one in the last decade or so. It has no intention of being pushed into a corner and it won’t. But that has put more than a coal project into the spot; its politics that is being affected although the opposition is non-existent.

From a space of total confidence where it had no thought of any opposition, the mood has shifted to battling a tiny opponent. How the government handles itself and tries to build public opinion will be worth watching.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.