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Time is running out

India must honour the promises it made to Bangladesh, a country India shares the longest border with and one that has demonstrably acted on terror, writes Suhasini Haidar.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2013 22:56 IST

The despondency in Bangladesh's leadership is clear. Even until six months ago, when journalists asked Bangladesh's foreign minister Dipu Moni about chances that India would overcome difficulties with clearing the Teesta water settlement and the Land Border Agreements (LBA), she sounded upbeat.

When asked pointedly if she would address the concerns of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee or the BJP, she said, "We are in negotiations with the Government of India. Period. It is not for us to convince the stakeholders within India."

On her recent visit, however, Moni no longer held the same kind of optimism. The highlight of her trip to New Delhi was a meeting with Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, where she spoke about the need for the Opposition to help ratify the LBA, exchanging of about 17,000 acres for 7,000 acres of enclave land on the India-Bangladesh border, in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament.

A day later, Bangladesh's high commissioner Tariq Karim travelled to Ahmedabad and called on the BJP's campaign chief and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, with the same mission.

"It would be very disappointing if the agreement is not cleared by Parliament in this session," Moni told CNN-IBN in an interview. "And definitely it would have consequences..." she said referring to Bangladesh's elections expected this December.

The truth is time isn't just running out for Sheikh Hasina's government in Dhaka to see the India-Bangladesh accords go through. After the monsoon session, the window for ratifying international agreements is closing on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's UPA as well, and with that a chance to keep his word that he gave when he travelled to Dhaka in 2011.

For that he may need to go the extra mile, convincing his own party, as well as reaching out to the Opposition to ensure that the LBA is listed early this monsoon session, and is passed.

There are several reasons why the impact of the UPA's actions on the LBA will count in both Bangladesh and in India. Contrary to what many think, it is Bangladesh, not Pakistan that shares the longest land border with India — 4,096.7km (Pakistan and India share a border of 3,323km, including the LoC).

In terms of interface, that would make Bangladesh India's most influential neighbour, and the benefits of settling a decades-old land dispute with Dhaka can hardly be discounted.

The obvious impact, of course, is on the elections in Bangladesh due to be completed by January 2014. While Sheikh Hasina's Awami League may or may not win the elections on the basis of the LBA and the Teesta accords, an electoral loss will most definitely be attributed to her 'over-accommodating' India.

All her actions from the crackdown on the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) camps, and handing over India's most wanted even before the two countries had an extradition treaty, will simply be seen as a sign of weakness that Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party will capitalise on.

Zia has made it clear she doesn't need to be friendly with India in the same way as Hasina, going to the extent of snubbing President Pranab Mukherjee when he visited Dhaka in March, calling a bandh on all the days he was there to protest tribunal verdicts against Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, and even cancelling her scheduled meeting with Mukherjee.

As Members of Parliament prepare for Indian elections scheduled a few months after Bangladesh's, they must consider what kind of a government they would like to engage with in Dhaka, and vote accordingly (2/3rds of both Houses must ratify the agreement).

The Indian leadership, both the UPA and the Opposition, must also think about the message it is giving out on terror to the whole region. For years, India has held that it is willing to go the extra mile so long as its neighbours eschew terror.

How can India justify stalling talks with Pakistan until it acts on terror, while Bangladesh, a country that has demonstrably acted on terror is given short shrift? Parliament may take heed of public opinion in India that has perceptibly changed during Hasina's term.

A survey conducted by CNN-IBN found that the more Indians (48% of those polled) felt Bangladesh was a country that should trusted than any other country. It remains to be seen if a similar survey in Bangladesh would evoke those results if India is unable to keep its word on the key issues.

Not just on terror, strained relations with Bangladesh at this juncture could jeopardise all the other significant gains made in bilateral ties. Bangladesh is now India's largest trading partner in the Saarc region, with bilateral trade hitting $5 billion, and imports from Bangladesh crossing $565 million.

India has effectively outbid China and Japan on several key projects in the country, including the biggest ever Bangladeshi JV for $1.6 billion for a 1,320 MW power plant at Bagerhat.

Through better road connectivity, Bangladesh is increasingly being seen as India's link to its own Northeast, as well its window to Southeast Asia.

This is also about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's legacy. His neighbourhood policy has often been touted as the most significant part of his world vision.

In the past few years, India has broken many promises to its neighbours: the promise of supporting democracy in the Maldives, the promise of backing Sri Lanka on the LTTE, the promise of more transit trade routes for Nepal, of uninterrupted and subsidised fuel supplies to Bhutan, and even Singh's promise to visit Pakistan.

The UPA government has used several reasons to explain its inability to deliver on those promises: for Sri Lanka, it was the compulsion of coalition partners, with Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, it has been about the need to counter-balance the influence of China.

With Pakistan, India has cited the 'public mood' and fierce resistance to peace overtures from the Opposition, as well as Pakistan's failure to deliver on its promises on trade and fighting terror, not to mention the latest provocation of jawans killed along the LoC.

With Bangladesh, none of those reasons would suffice and the time to keep those promises is now.

Suhasini Haidar is foreign affairs editor, CNN-IBN

The views expressed by the author are personal