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A Ballot-Paper War
When reports surfaced that PM Sheikh Hasina, en route to Brussels, might drop by in New Delhi on May 14 for a brief meeting with her Indian counterpart, it caught no one by surprise. The urgency and desperation that prompted Hasina to seek an appointment with Vajpayee was perhaps linked to the fear of an Indian reprisal attack that still haunts Bangladesh three weeks after the worst border clashes to date between the two countries. These fears were compounded by an unusual Indian troop build-up along the border. Such was the nervousness in the establishment that a Bangladeshi official confessed to Outlook last week: "I've a feeling they'll not stop until they kill 16 of our bdr men."
The meeting between the two PMs is now unlikely to happen because, as foreign minister Abdus Samad Azad said, a "mutually convenient" time could not be agreed upon. But fears of an Indian reprisal subsided following the Indian offer of talks—conveyed to Dhaka on April 30—for resolving the outstanding border disputes. Indian high commissioner Mani Lal Tripathi met Azad on May 1, even though it was a holiday, to reaffirm his government's sincerity about the talks. "We're serious about resolving the border issue as quickly as possible," Tripathi said. "We mustn't allow such incidents to cast a shadow over our friendly and cordial relationship."
Azad immediately welcomed the offer, but also said that because of certain difficulties "at our end" it wouldn't be possible to agree to the Indian proposal of holding the talks between May 22 and 25. But a foreign ministry official was quick to point out that this shouldn't be "interpreted as an attempt on our part to delay the talks. They'll be held shortly." Even then, the talks offer has meant trouble for the ruling Awami League. For one, Opposition leader Khaleda Zia was quick to brand Hasina an Indian stooge. "Now she's going there to beg apology for what our heroes did, instead of making Delhi pay for its adventurism," Khaleda said.
Says political scientist Prof Serajul Chowdhury, "I'm sure they'd do their best to keep the issue alive at any cost. The border clash has come in handy for the Opposition." It will, for one, provide the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led four-party alliance to harp on the Indian factor for galvanising the people against the government, something it palpably failed to do in the last four years. Already, alliance leaders have started to exploit the border conflict to whip up public sentiment. "You've already seen that our independence and sovereignty isn't safe in their hands," thundered Zia at a public meeting in northeastern Sylhet last week, referring to the Hasina administration's returning Padua to India after bdr forces had recaptured it. "We reassure you that if we come back to power we'll make sure that Padua belongs to us," she told the cheering crowd.
But analysts are sceptical about the leverage the clash can hand to the Opposition in the polls. "I don't think it'll have much of an impact," argues columnist Nirmal Sen, adding that much depends on how India reacts in the coming weeks. In other words, the border issue is likely to die down unless Delhi goes in for some provocative actions. Others feel the flare-up could work to Hasina's advantage, since she—and the bdr—has emerged victorious in the conflict. Add to this the possibility of an amicable solution of the Indo-Bangla border issue, and Khaleda could well find herself on the backfoot.
"Things have undergone a radical change in the last decade," says Muntasir Mamun, professor of History at Dhaka University. "People want concrete results. They've realised they didn't gain much during the two decades—between 1975 and 1995—when rabidly anti-Indian forces were in power." Indeed, some measures taken in the past four years have substantially allayed the imaginary fears about India. The reintroduction of the direct bus service between Dhaka and Calcutta in '98, for instance, has made closer interaction possible. And the re-establishment of the Benapole-Calcutta rail link after more than 35 years promises to deepen such contacts even further. But as the flare-up proved, it's a fragile peace—and that's what Khaleda hopes to cash in on.
Arshad Mahmud in Dhaka