India Bangladesh relations have been growing from strength to strength under the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena. Traditionally Awami League’s relations with India given past legacy of Indian role in the Bangladesh freedom movement and close bond of Indian leadership with Banga bandhu and founder of the nation Sheikh Mujibur has been very strong.
Sheikh Haseena has particularly focused on building up the same during her present tenure with many notable agreements including that on the Land Boundary, trade and transit and so on. More over under her leadership Bangladesh has pushed back a number of key leaders of militant groups operating in India’s North East including the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) which has led to a degree of peace and stability in the region.
India however seems to be expanding the spectrum engagement with Bangladesh polity with an invitation to visit to leader of the Opposition and Chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Begum Khaleda Zia from the External Affairs Minister from October 28 to November 3, 2012. During her visit, Begum Khaleda Zia is scheduled to call on the President and the Prime Minister. She would also meet with the External Affairs Minister, Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha, National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary. She is also expected to visit Ajmer Sharif.
In her earlier visit as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 2006, Begum Khaleda Zia may not have had as warm a welcome as she is having today. The BNP is generally seen to be anti India and during 10 years of the rule of the Party in the 1990’s to mid 2000 the Party has been accused of giving a free rein to the Director General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) Bangladesh equivalent of the Pakistani intelligence agency the ISI to support terrorist groups who were inimical to Indian interests. The Caretaker Government that followed the BNP and the Awami League has reversed this policy.
As per leading Bangladesh daily, the Daily Star (10 October 2012) - “BNP leaders have always labelled the ruling Awami League as "pro-Indian." The party chairperson has also accused the present government of serving India's interests. The party strongly opposed the government move to provide India with transit facilities. It also strongly criticised India over the killings of Bangladeshi nationals by the BSF on the border and the Tipaimukh dam issue”.
Significantly BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia was on a visit to Beijing in the second week of October at the invitation of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). Chinese leaders reportedly assured BNP chief Khaleda Zia of extending cooperation in building the second Padma Bridge and a deep seaport.
Obviously the BNP as well as India are setting the stage for the elections in Bangladesh to be held in 2013 end or 2014. Khaleda Zia is mustering support from China and India for her Party by gaining approval for investments and aid and assistance. This will enable her to gain support in the country as the Awami League is set to cash in on the Padma Bridge loan by the World Bank despite the hiccups of allegations of corruption.
Meanwhile in India Khaleda Zia would also gun for more aid and assistance apart from harping on some of the contentious issues that have been rankling the relationship. She will also attempt to cut back on the impression that her Party is anti India and thereby gain support from New Delhi for her election bid.
Knowing fluctuations in the politics in Bangladesh the Indian side is also possibly finely balancing relations between the two main parties BNP and Awami League. On the other hand it may be a case of making up existing gaps in political engagement with Bangladesh where India had so far restricted options and thus suffered when BNP was in power in the country. Another interpretation is that seeing the trends, India is expecting the BNP to come out strongly in the next elections due in January 2014 and thus is tilting towards that Party. Khaleda is also balancing to ensure that both key neighbours remain on board by first visiting Beijing and then New Delhi almost immediately.
The reaction of the ruling Awami League to these overtures are not clear so far, the Party has been in the past not very happy with India and the BNP coming closer. Whatever be the outcome of the visit of the BNP Chairperson, India Bangladesh relations may be up for a shift to a far more mature and balanced one than in the past which should prove beneficial to both the countries.