UPA-II must make Bangladesh its foreign policy success story

Given territorial disputes with all our neighbours, with Bangladesh UPA has a possibility of a settlement on our terms without ceding or losing territory. If India as a nation cannot accept even this kind of boundary settlement with a friendly country, we may better wind up our talks with China.

Rajeev Sharma August 31, 2013 11:04:19 IST
UPA-II must make Bangladesh its foreign policy success story

The UPA government is trying its damnedest best to pull off a valuable and much-delayed present for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who is likely to visit India a fortnight later.

But this present – introduction of the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) bill in parliament next week – is unlikely to be fully ready and properly gift-wrapped any time soon. The UPA will require support from the main opposition party, the BJP, to make it happen. The government has been unable to introduce the bill in parliament until now in view of stiff opposition from the BJP and the Trinamool Congress.

UPAII must make Bangladesh its foreign policy success story

The government will be able to tell Hasina that it would try to ensure the passage of the bill by parliament by this year end. Reuters

But a series of discussions External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has of late had with representatives of these two parties has opened up a toe-hold for the government and these political parties have conveyed to Khurshid that they won’t after all be opposing the introduction of the LBA bill in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, now extended to September 6.

As a result, the government is likely to introduce the bill in the Rajya Sabha on Monday. If a bill is introduced in the Rajya Sabha and the parliament session gets over, bills introduced in the upper house stay alive.

However, the BJP and the TMC have not given up their opposition to the bill. They have only softened their stance a wee bit and agreed to allow the government to pilot the bill in parliament. The government knows that the bill will not be passed in the current session of parliament. It will in all probability be sent to a parliamentary select committee with a request to give their determination on it by the time the winter session of parliament begins.

By using this middle path, the government would be sending a message to Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina, who is expected to land in New Delhi in the middle of September, that the Indian government is mindful of her political imperatives and is doing its best.

In that scenario, the government will be able to tell Hasina that it would try to ensure the passage of the bill by parliament by this year end, in time for Bangladesh general elections expected to be held around that time.

When coming to the end of the almost 10 years of UPA's rule, it is time to look at the score card. It has virtually nothing to showcase on the foreign policy front in sharp contrast to the UPA-I tenure when it masterminded the India-US nuclear deal to reset India-US relations. A similar expectation of a foreign policy success has arisen with regard to Bangladesh as the constellation of factors favoured development of reconfigured relations with Bangladesh.

Delhi watchers will know how Bangladesh, which had been the victim of benign neglect of South Block, was suddenly the talk of the town. Therefore, it was not surprising that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Dhaka in September 2011 to move the relations several notches higher and grant the relations a paradigm shift, to move it from the earlier trust deficit to one based on trust and mutual understanding.

The game changer to usher in this new relationship was the India-Bangladesh Framework Agreement which was able to exorcise many ghosts of the past and talk of many new areas of cooperation which were hitherto taboo, such as Connectivity and Sub-Regional Cooperation. An equally important success was the signing of the Protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974, which once and for all would settle the boundary between the two countries.

It may not be an exaggeration to state that this generated unabashed optimism on both sides about the future of the relationship and today the report card of India-Bangladesh relations is at least a Very Good if not Excellent despite the failure on the part of India to sign the agreement on sharing of the Teesta waters.

The lack of progress on Teesta, the other very important political imperative for Hasina, could be blamed on the vagaries of coalition politics. The same pessimism did not surround the ratification of the Land Boundary deal. Although, it required a Constitutional Amendment, observers in Bangladesh have felt that there is consensus in India across party lines on good relations with Bangladesh.

Therefore the Congress and the BJP could at least for once get together behind something which would be in national interests. Even for the BJP, Bangladesh represents a moderate and pluralistic polity. There are sizeable minorities in Bangladesh whose welfare definitely interests the BJP. Further, this was a chance to put the nation above politics as the BJP does not have a significant political presence in any of the states bordering Bangladesh.

In fact, this is an opportunity for the BJP to give something to the UPA on Bangladesh and extract a stronger position on Pakistan which would satisfy the BJP's core constituency. Instead, the BJP risks putting into jeopardy the only thriving relationship in the neighbourhood which is India's largest trading partner and a home to thousands of Indian professional earning their livelihood.

Our politicians across the political spectrum in India must understand that ratifying the protocol to the LBA does not really imply losing territory. It just legalizes the de-facto situation which plainly means that Indian enclaves in Bangladesh are in Bangladesh's possession while Bangladesh's enclaves in India are in India's possession.

The agreement merely recognizes the reality of the situation by giving letting Bangladesh keep the enclaves in their possession which are well inside Bangladesh territory and India keeping the enclaves in its possession which are located inside Indian territory. The so-called loss of land is a figment of one's imagination because clearly the total area of the enclaves in Bangladesh's possession is not same as the area of enclaves in India's possession. Besides, while the area of the Indian enclaves may be larger than that of Bangladesh, India has no access to them nor are we exercising sovereignty. Moreover, the people in the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh do not want to be Indian citizens. They want to be Bangladesh citizens.

Similarly, people in Bangladesh enclaves in India want to be Indians. So, in the end, nobody is gaining or losing either land or people. And how can we give up something which we do not even possess?

The LBA ratification is akin to legalizing the right of the cultivators to the land of the zamindar or something like 'land to the tillers". Those evoke nationalism while speaking of India ceding territory area doing the greatest disservice to our own people who live in Bangladeshi enclaves in India. These people despite being Indians are not being given the privilege of calling themselves Indians and are living wretched lives as state less persons in their own land just due the travesty of partition of our sub-continent.

There are others who are linking the LBA bill to the question of political survival of Sheikh Hasina and ask why should India try to appease her? The answer to this erroneous linkage is that the Land Boundary Agreement is not something that we are giving to Bangladesh. Instead it is something we as a nation deserve to have to define our own Statehood. How can we claim to be defenders of our nationhood and sovereignty if our own borders are undefined and unsettled?

History has bequeathed us territorial disputes with all our neighbours, be it China, Pakistan, Bangladesh or even Nepal. Only in the case of Bangladesh do we have a situation where there can be a settlement at our terms without ceding or losing territory merely by the act of recognizing the de-facto ground situation.

If India as a nation cannot accept even this kind of boundary settlement with a friendly country, we may better wind up our talks with China on settlement of the India-China boundary question as that will be a settlement more rather than less on Chinese terms with a not so friendly neighbour.

To leave a lasting foreign policy legacy, the Congress and the UPA have to assert themselves and reach out to the opposition. The extension of the parliament session gives a sliver of hope.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst. Hiw Twitter handle is @Kishkindha.

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