Khaleda’s Delhi trip: ‘Gains and losses’

The recent visit of Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia to India was widely discussed in political, diplomatic and press circles in Bangladesh, as the three-day visit came under serious evaluation in terms of “gains and losses” particularly for the reason that Dhaka has several contentious bilateral issues with New Delhi.

The focus remains on the details of the outcome with the government calling it “productive and successful” while the opposition describing the trip as “fruitless.” The press comments seem divided over the results with some calling the PM’s talks with Indian leaders useful in improving the overall bilateral climate. On the other hand, some newspapers said Khaleda has returned “empty-handed” since Dhaka “received nothing substantial” except general commitments.

The Dhaka-New Delhi ties have not been too smooth recently, particularly during the last four and a half years. But the very fact that the visit took place hardly six months before the expiry of the term of the present government is also a point of debate. Critics say it was “ill-timed” since the host nation would hardly talk matters seriously as it would wait to see who comes to power in the next polls scheduled for late this year or January next year. Obviously, the government downplayed such criticisms and stressed that both countries found a mutually convenient time.

Unfortunately, no concrete success has been achieved on any important bilateral matters so far. The trade gap is in favour of New Delhi and Dhaka is still asking for duty-free access for several of its products. The two countries have an accord on sharing the waters of the Ganges, but Bangladesh is not happy with the sharing arrangement signed during the last Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina. Besides, the issue of water sharing of the Teesta and several other rivers is also a contentious point. Bangladesh is strongly objecting to the construction of a dam in “Tipaimukh” in Manipur state of India since it is felt that this will harm the water flow in the Sylhet region. The Indian mega river-linking project is also seen with great concern in Bang-ladesh, as it is apprehensive of the adverse effects on the lower riparian region.

The situation along the border, non-ratification by the Indian parliament of the 1974 agreement on demarcation of the land boundary, fencing of a part of the border by India, etc were high on the agenda this time. For the Indian side, illegal immigration, sanctuary to Indian terrorists, rise of religious militancy and transit facilities through Bangl-adesh attracted interest.

The visit, notwithstanding the raging debate, revolves around the “real gains” for Bangladesh. The opposition felt the visit was “useless” and said it was meant to “pacify” India before the polls in Bangladesh. Some critics even say Dhaka has covertly agreed to Indian “transit” request in some form — an issue with serious political overtones for Bangladesh. However, commentators like Prof. Dilara Chowdhury have said that Bangladesh achieved little in substance, but the visit is important in improving the ambience for better ties.

Chowdhury, a foreign editor at BSS, writes for THT from Dhaka