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Neighbourly neighbours

india Updated: Jan 11, 2010 22:04 IST

Hindustan Times
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New Delhi should take very careful note of the visit of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. It is not merely that this is India’s second largest neighbour. It is that her visit could mark a sea-change in relations between the two countries if India is prepared to think long-term and act generously. Bangladesh has never been a threat to India, but it has only intermittently been seen a friend. Sheikh Hasina has always represented the best hope for changing this in a positive way. The possibility of realising this potential now exists. One is that she comes with the strongest electoral mandate that any India-friendly government has had in Dhaka in three decades. Two, the spread of Islamicism that was seen during the last Bangladeshi regime indicates that India can no longer maintain a policy of benign neglect towards this country. Three, the two countries are now much more confident of their economic trajectories than they were in the past. Bangladesh is no basket case: It matches India’s human development index and has overtaken it in apparel exports.

Though India has claimed credit, the truth is that the recent arrest of the insurgency leader, Arabinda Rajkhowa, would not have been possible without assistance from Dhaka. Bangladesh has also taken considerable action against Islamic militancy based in that country. Dhaka, in other words, has begun to fulfil the equation that India has offered to its neighbours: address India’s security concerns and India will allow you to partake of its new-found economic prosperity. However, India has so far been ungenerous about opening its market to Bangladesh’s exports. Nearly 50 items remain on the negative import list that is presented to Dhaka. The gains and losses, in dollar terms, are negligible for both sides but are hugely symbolic in Bangladesh and crucial to providing political cover for Sheikh Hasina as she pushes her country closer to India.

Ultimately this is about India coming to understand that if it is wishes to stabilise at least three of its four borders. In the past decade, India has been seen major shifts in attitudes in countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Even Nepal is in better shape than it was before. Bangladesh is ready for a similar shift and the price it is demanding is quite minimal. New Delhi needs only to do what other great powers have done in the past, which is to make short-term economic concessions in return for long-term security gains. This is the essence of strategy and Bangladesh is among the most important tests of India’s understanding of this concept.New Delhi should take very careful note of the visit of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. It is not merely that this is India’s second largest neighbour. It is that her visit could mark a sea-change in relations between the two countries if India is prepared to think long-term and act generously. Bangladesh has never been a threat to India, but it has only intermittently been seen a friend. Sheikh Hasina has always represented the best hope for changing this in a positive way. The possibility of realising this potential now exists. One is that she comes with the strongest electoral mandate that any India-friendly government has had in Dhaka in three decades. Two, the spread of Islamicism that was seen during the last Bangladeshi regime indicates that India can no longer maintain a policy of benign neglect towards this country. Three, the two countries are now much more confident of their economic trajectories than they were in the past. Bangladesh is no basket case: It matches India’s human development index and has overtaken it in apparel exports.

Though India has claimed credit, the truth is that the recent arrest of the insurgency leader, Arabinda Rajkhowa, would not have been possible without assistance from Dhaka. Bangladesh has also taken considerable action against Islamic militancy based in that country. Dhaka, in other words, has begun to fulfil the equation that India has offered to its neighbours: address India’s security concerns and India will allow you to partake of its new-found economic prosperity. However, India has so far been ungenerous about opening its market to Bangladesh’s exports. Nearly 50 items remain on the negative import list that is presented to Dhaka. The gains and losses, in dollar terms, are negligible for both sides but are hugely symbolic in Bangladesh and crucial to providing political cover for Sheikh Hasina as she pushes her country closer to India.

Ultimately this is about India coming to understand that if it is wishes to stabilise at least three of its four borders. In the past decade, India has been seen major shifts in attitudes in countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Even Nepal is in better shape than it was before. Bangladesh is ready for a similar shift and the price it is demanding is quite minimal. New Delhi needs only to do what other great powers have done in the past, which is to make short-term economic concessions in return for long-term security gains. This is the essence of strategy and Bangladesh is among the most important tests of India’s understanding of this concept.