Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 8 June 2015
A day can be a long time in politics.
On Saturday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi hyped up expectations in a newspaper interview ahead of his first visit to Bangladesh on June 6, by comparing the settling of the Land Boundary Agreement between Bangladesh and India with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
By Sunday evening, his external affairs minister had squashed hopes that the Teesta water sharing agreement would be signed during his visit, citing a lack of internal consensus and agreement with the West Bengal government.
This does not mean his visit will not generate new optimism for bilateral relations. Progress can still be expected to be made on deals relating to coastal shipping, security issues, and new lines of credit. Like all such diplomatic trips, it is likely to be choreographed to allow both the Bangladeshi and Indian governments to accentuate the positive.
In this spirit, it is still worth hoping that Modi can live up to his proclaimed commitment to pursue “outcome-based diplomacy,” that delivers shared prosperity for both our nations.
Hope is not lost that Bangladesh can eventually achieve mutually fair agreements on the vital issues of water sharing and removing non-tariff barriers to boost bilateral trade. Modi’s electoral support relies, in part, on commitments to corporate India to boost business and trade. To increase the pace of the transit deals, India desires to connect more efficiently with its north-eastern states, and it is in his interest to lower the barriers that exacerbate Bangladesh’s $5bn plus trade deficit with India.
To live up to his promise of changing “the mood of the neighbourhood,” the Indian prime minister will need to use more of the political skills he showed in pushing through the long stalled LBA, to address Bangladesh’s legitimate concerns.
It will be mean going beyond the mindset which sees both our nations treating our long mutual border as a boundary to be rigorously defended. As commentators have long pointed out, India’s border walls and its desire for transit are mutually incompatible. To be practically viable, it can have one or the other, but not both.
This poses a challenge to Modi’s traditional base of support among Hindu nationalists — a group to which he recently threw a carrot by promising residency rights to Bangladeshi Hindus in India. It is of course up to Indian voters to determine whether this is desirable or fair to Bangladeshi Muslims in India, I couldn’t possibly comment.
Whatever one’s view on this promise, it highlights the constraints Modi faces in holding together his presently dominant electoral base.
It will take both pragmatism and far-sightedness to effectively refocus India and Bangladesh’s foreign policies on lowering borders and boosting mutual relations.
Transit ought to be a win-win scenario for both countries. If India gains corridors to the North East, Bangladesh should be able to boost trade access to Bhutan, Nepal, and India. Both states can benefit by improving connectivity and giving a boost to the BCIM corridor and Bimstec initiatives. As yet, there is no certainty that mutual caution is diminishing to the extent needed to allow this to happen.
If we are to give Mr Modi’s Cold War metaphor the benefit of the doubt, however, then, rather than try and unpick who is the Gorbachev and who is the Thatcher and Honecker, we should look, as he infers, to the EU as a point of reference.
For all the uncertainty surrounding the Eurozone and high profile political opposition to further integration, the EU has succeeded beyond its founders’ dreams in providing a platform to secure peace and prosperity for a continent riven by conflict for centuries and which gave rise to two World Wars within the space of a generation.
European citizens are not going to be giving up their visa free travel (border control free within Schengen) and freedom to move and invest, any time soon, however Eurosceptic its politics becomes. The advantages in lowering barriers to free movement of goods, people, and services generally far outweigh the costs.
It will be good, then, for all the peoples of South Asia, if Bangladesh and India can improve relations and set an example to allow Saarc and SAFTA to move in the same direction.
One small but symbolic illustration of our region’s dysfunction can be seen in the contrast between the journey times by train between Dhaka and Kolkata and between London and Paris, which are roughly comparable distances.
Whereas the Maitree express has only latterly got round to three services a week and takes a minimum scheduled time of 10 hours, entailing multiple stops for border checks, Eurostar shuttles people between three European capitals in two hours dozens of times a day.
It cannot be beyond the wit of Bangladesh and Indian railways to slash journey times in half and profitably run multiple, daily services. The latter runs a huge network and one of the planet’s great commuter railroads in Mumbai, and Bangladeshis are well practiced in overcoming logistical difficulties.
The roadblock lies in deep-seated inertia and a lack of mutual willingness to simplify border regulations. The opportunity costs of not improving land-links between two of the world’s largest cities should speak for themselves, but political myopia still keeps this so-called express service from reaching its potential.
The fact that some people may think trains are irrelevant or scoff that genuine free-trade and mutually beneficial relations are a pipe dream, is, to me, an indication of how far we still have to go.
Vision is the one thing Bangladesh needs more than ever to fulfill the hopes and potential of its people.
We should not, in 2015, still be having the same debates about whether Bangladesh needs a new deep sea port or improved railway and road connections. The government should be prioritising our own infrastructure anyway to meet the demands of our own growing market as well as reaching out to other countries to increase investment.
Bangladesh’s challenge is not India — or China for that matter — wanting to do deals for corridors which further their own interests, but in persuading our own politicians and planners to do more to improve national infrastructure.
There is no reason why we should not aspire to be building a new deep sea port and faster highways and railways ourselves already. Our large domestic market is growing fast and geography places us at the crossroads of South and South East Asia.
Regardless of the speed at which politics permits diplomatic efforts to progress, Bangladesh should still be moving ahead to speed up internal communications and opportunities anyway, to match our economy’s potential. Investing in infrastructure is a proven path to generating a virtuous cycle of higher growth and investment.
Of course, we should hope that improving bilateral and regional relations will lower barriers and boost trade and investment, but Bangladesh can and must still get on with much of the task ourselves. Done right, it can truly live up to the promise that if we build it, they will come.