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Subir Bhaumik, Hindustan Times
August 18, 2013
As India’s leading Opposition party, which eyes power in 2014, the BJP will have to review some of its positions on India’s neighbourhood policy. A friendly neighbourhood should be India’s foreign policy priority in years to come. Nobody expects the BJP, if it comes to power, to take Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s route to Lahore offering peace to Nawaz Sharif with open arms. Not after Kargil and Mumbai 26/11. The policy towards Pakistan has to be cautious and calibrated, keeping in mind that the army still calls the shot there.

On China, the BJP, would do well to consider speeding up the border negotiations process and setting a timeframe on resolving the border dispute. It was perfect for Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao to sideline the border dispute and push ahead on positive aspects like trade growth.

But it is time to realise that further delays on resolving the border dispute is unwarranted because this is one issue that has the capacity to derail an improving relationship, as the Depsang Bulge confrontation indicated.

So though the border issue may not be seen as central to Sino-Indian relations, it should be of priority.

On Bhutan, the BJP may do well to be magnanimous, if not for anything but to make up for the Congress faux pas on the gas subsidy issue. Now that the new Bhutanese government has pledged not to offend India (by implication meaning it will avoid any future overtures from China), India should go a bit out of its way to placate ruffled feathers in Thimphu by being magnanimous.

Indians expect any government in Delhi to be decisive and not complacent on Nepal. We have much advantage in the former Hindu kingdom, but the feeling is India has frittered away all that by being complacent while China makes a strong effort to dig its heels into what is the last real Himalayan buffer between the two Asian giants. If the BJP comes to power, it would do well to wake up to the complex dynamics of Nepal’s fledgling democracy and help steer the process.

But it is Bangladesh where the BJP’s policy must undergo a complete change from the Vajpayee era. Vajpayee and Brajesh Mishra made the crucial mistake of not realising that India does not have a choice in Bangladesh but to back the Awami League all out. Mishra’s ‘not-all-eggs-in-one-basket’ misfired when, within a year of his being the first foreign dignitary to welcome Begum Khaleda Zia to power, her son was found by Indian intelligence engaged in secret confabulations with Dawood Ibrahim and ISI officials in Dubai. The rest is history.

The suffering of Hindus during the last BNP government and their relative comfort whenever the Awami League is in power should also drive home the point about who’s what in Bangladesh. Therefore, instead of fuelling jingoism over a few kilometres of enclave territory by opposing the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh, the BJP would do well to support the Bill meant to formalise the agreement. If the land boundary agreement falls through in Parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may back off from signing the Teesta river water sharing pact. If these two agreements don’t come through, they will adversely affect the Awami League’s chance of returning to power, as Bangladesh’s foreign minister Dipu Moni recently said in New Delhi.

A regime change in Dhaka is what New Delhi can least afford now, what with more trouble expected in Kashmir after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. If Hasina loses the polls and the ‘India factor’ plays a role in her defeat, the likes of Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee will have to share the responsibility for letting a ‘second front of Islamic radicalism’ emerge on India’s eastern borders and insurgencies in the north-east may again get a fresh lease of life. BJP president Rajnath Singh, during his recent visit to the US, ruled out any major change to Indian foreign policy if the party comes to power, but only ‘minor adjustments may be expected’.

On Bangladesh, the party needs to get its act together right now by not opposing the land boundary agreement and backing Manmohan Singh’s signing of the Teesta deal to ensure India is not responsible for an Awami League defeat.

Subir Bhaumik is senior fellow of the Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development in Kolkata
The views expressed by the author are personal