Despite the apparently friendly relations with India, there still remain unresolved issues between the two countries
A news report of a well-known Bangladeshi film actor having his visa revoked for India for his alleged participation in a voting campaign for a West Bengal candidate in the ongoing parliamentary elections is both amusing and instructive.
It is amusing because, to some of us, it looks like the political interests of India and Bangladesh are interlocked. It is instructive because the incident should show to all of us where to draw a line in our enthusiasm in demonstrating love for our fellow Bengalis on the other side.
I do not know the fallout of this ban for the actor, but I do know that it will have some impact on Indian perception of active interest of Bangladesh in Indian elections. By Indian perception, I mean the view of the ruling party.
A Bangladeshi film actor’s campaign support for a particular candidate in Indian elections may not matter in the larger scheme of things for India. But it does raise a question whether an individual Bangladeshi’s open declaration of support for an opposition candidate is a barometer of Bangladesh’s wishes for a change in India.
Perhaps there are wishes that a change in government in India could bring a change in our bilateral relations. But the wishes for a government in the more powerful neighbouring country that looks upon its smaller neighbours with a more benevolent eye may not be out of place. What may be out of place is to expect that any country will sacrifice its own interests to accommodate the wishes of its neighbouring countries.
Therefore, dancing for a particular political party or expecting that party to win the next elections in India will do us no good.
The political party that ruled the Indian political space as well as the government for much of the time since Indian independence has been Congress. The leadership of this party was at the helm during the crisis of 1971, and it has been more than sympathetic to Bangladesh, both in words and action. It is the iron personality of Indira Gandhi and her party that stood solidly behind our struggle for liberation and saw us through that critical period. Our leaders in return have expressed their gratitude to this party leadership in returning the friendship via many bilateral treaties and international alliances.
A critical flaw in this relationship has been mistaking personal relationships between the founders of our country with the political personalities of that time (who happened to belong to Indian Congress) as a permanent relationship between two countries. There is no doubt that a strong personal relationship between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a driver in our bilateral relationship, but that relationship did not or could not supplant our national interests.
It took decades to implement the bilateral agreement on land borders that was agreed upon soon after our liberation between the two countries. The personal relationship between the two leaders was not enough to solve our water-sharing agreement on Ganges and Teesta. Yet, we continued to deceive ourselves by harking back to “close” personal relationships that once existed between the leadership of the two countries during our independence.
In our blind view, we forget that there is no perennial government ruled by a single party. India is a democracy, and its voters decide who they send to power. In the past 50 years or so of our existence, we had seen seven prime ministers in India who did not belong to Congress (even though a few of them did not last more than a year). But they all, including the current incumbent, belonged to political opponents of Congress. Can anyone say our bilateral relationship suffered during the tenure of any of these non-Congress prime ministers?
It is difficult to prognosticate the final results of ongoing parliamentary elections in India. This is a marathon of seven phases spread over six weeks. The current ruling party does not have a stellar report card in its first term, but it can crow about success of the economy and growth. Its communal image notwithstanding, the party’s iconic leader has a vast brood of loyal supporters who can and will run a relentless campaign for the party.
Compared with this, the leadership of the main opposition is relatively young and politically inexperienced. It is a battle between a politically shrewd and experienced leader and a youth who is banking on the charisma of a family name associated with Indian freedom.
It may be premature, but judging from accounts in the Indian press and other international observations, it may not be that Indian voters will topple the current leadership from its position. It may not be a repeat of 2015 results with a landslide for BJP, but it will not be another Congress government at the centre this time around.
On our side, we have to recognize that personal closeness between leaders of countries does matter in forming bonds and understandings. But this is not a substitute for fundamental aspects of any bilateral relationship, which is based on each country’s own interest. These interests are best achieved by maturity of statesmanship, strategic positioning, and deeper understanding of the views and policies of the other country.
Governments come and go, but countries and people remain for long. With impending changes in India, our leaders need also to rise up to the challenges of new relationships and new dialogues. Our rhetoric needs to be supported by plans, both tactical and strategic, to keep bilateral relations mutually beneficial.
Despite the apparently close friendly relations with India in the last decades, there still remain unresolved issues between the two countries, water sharing included. India also has some unmet wishes, including transit and trans-shipment, and concerns over terrorism. A new government in India will look upon these with as much earnestness as the one before.
All of these require deft and competent handling on our side. I hope we will be ready, both politically and technically, when the change comes.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.