Bangladesh and Nepal share a common thread
What do we mean by a strategic partnership? It means a quest for a sustained, long-term (10-15 years) goal-driven relationship for mutual benefit that is multi-functional and multi-level (involving states, civil societies, and private) sectors. Obviously, no two countries engage in a strategic partnership for their own sake. There must, after all, be an alignment of national interests. In the case of Bangladesh and Nepal, there are many.
First and foremost, both Nepal and Bangladesh share a common fear perception from Indian asymmetry given India’s territorial, economic, and demographic size, as well as its military might, fortified by its democratic polity and rapid strides in modernization.
Both countries also draw their heritage from a civilizational thread common to all the peoples of the Indian sub-continent while finding themselves enveloped in a crisis of cultural identities. For both, strenuous efforts have to be made to carve out their peculiar national niches as distinct from Indian identity. Most Nepalis’ first choice for higher education used to be Kolkata during the British Raj, and thus were intimate with the Bengali language and literature.
Bangladesh and Nepal share the same environment and watershed, and so there is a commonality of interests for preserving environmental, food, water, and energy security. Floods and silting in Bangladesh can be prevented with cooperative actions in reforestation and water storage in Nepal.
The presence of arsenic in tube wells in the plains can be substituted, through cooperation, by harnessing sweet Himalayan waters for the common good. Bangladesh, being a coastal state, can alleviate the geographic constraint of Nepal as a landlocked state by providing access to the high seas and thereby helping it enjoy its rights to the resources of the ocean. Besides, Bangladesh can also allow its territory to be used for transit trade to overseas countries.
Nations of hybrids
Being least developed countries, the two nations share a common interest in championing the cause of such countries at the UN and its specialized agencies, including the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. Both share common perspectives on the role of the UN in providing collective security to small states. Similarly, both the countries are heavily overpopulated and both are deeply cognizant of the need to have additional avenues for employment for their citizens in labour markets beyond their territories.
Moreover, both countries are conscious of the fact that scientific management of the Himalayan watershed will lead to an ecologically friendly and far more efficient division of labour in the broad field of agriculture, forestry, and farming systems. There is a natural highland-lowland linkage that deserves to be garnered through the application of S&T and collaboration in R&D for mutual benefit. Likewise, both being heavily aid-dependent states, they need to exchange experiences over the pursuance of similar policies based on the Washington Consensus for their contextual validity and ownership besides cooperating to promote the best development lessons from each other.
Last, but not least, both countries have huge minority populations, and they need to learn how to govern with full inclusion of all races, castes, tribes, creeds, languages, and religions while maintaining the integrity of the nation-state. Both countries are conscious of themselves as being nations of hybrids with centuries-old reverence for Mother Nature and all its glories and wonders.
As early as 1977, I had advised the then His Majesty’s government about the immense goodwill in Bangladesh for Nepal amid the political, administrative, and military leadership. I had also stated in a report that there was a tendency for Bangladeshis to overestimate the potential of Nepal while we tended to underestimate Bangladesh’s potential, which was not conducive to the growth of mutually beneficial bilateralism. Correspondingly, there was an overwhelming tendency to see each other as competitors rather than complementary nations and give priority to short-term over long-term interests.
The third-country factor
In the 1970s, Bangladesh was going through much political turmoil compared to the peace and tranquility in Nepal. Nepal was exporting food to India when Bangladesh was described as a “basket case” by no less a person than Henry Kissinger -- perhaps more out of geo-political annoyance for its initial closeness to India and the USSR. But the description had a profound negative impact on the world’s perception of Bangladesh.
The other constraining factor was Nepal’s excessive dependence on India in the 1960s and 1970s for trade, supplies of essential goods, and aid coupled with the fact that India did not provide transit to Bangladesh. Little did it dawn on us then that though de jure territorially separated, we are de facto territorially conjoined by virtue of common Himalayan rivers. Rivers inevitably bind us together as one “territory” with a common interest for sustainable development of each other as upper and lower riparian states.
Not to be underestimated as a binding constraint against the growth of bilateral economic cooperation is the in-built vested interests that have been institutionalized among transporters, forwarders, clearing agents, wholesale merchants, and border customs officials engaged in transit trade through India. To shift to another transit paradigm will undoubtedly destabilize their illicit rental incomes. As the two countries are not contiguous neighbours, it is often wondered whether the envisaged strategic partnership between Nepal and Bangladesh will not be subject to developments in bilateral relations between India and Nepal on one hand and between India and Bangladesh on the other. This is a legitimate concern for any relationship and all the more reason why it needs to be nurtured as a strategic partnership.
On the whole, for historical and geographical reasons, as well as from conventional short-term thinking on foreign policy, Bangladesh has appeared on the Nepali political radar primarily when bilateral friction arises with India. A strategic partnership requires that each country looks upon bilateral relations based on its own merits and not through third-country factors as has been done in the past, or, indeed, by placing excessive faith in regional cooperation hoping that it will make up for the loss from a bilateral strategic partnership.
Madhukar Sjb Rana is a former Finance Minister of Nepal. This article previously appeared in The Kathmandu Post.