April 10, 2020
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A Rooftop Passenger

It was Basu vs Vajpayee, not diplomacy, that stole the show

A Rooftop Passenger
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's bus diplomacy this time transported domestic political rivalries to neighbouring Bangladesh. The rousing reception accorded to West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu during the inauguration of the Dhaka-Calcutta bus service has left the bjp fuming, and a latent churlishness between the two leaders marked the goodwill visit.

Vajpayee went ahead with the scheduled visit to Dhaka, despite the ongoing Kargil conflict, primarily to showcase his sincerity in promoting better ties with neighbours. He could also not have wanted to let Basu hijack the credit for the initiative, since polls are only a few months away. So the way the Bangladeshi authorities lavished attention on the 'son of the soil '  and the enthusiastic public doted on him ruffled the bjp. It feels the reception accorded to the chief minister was a breach of protocol.

Bangladeshi authorities as well as Basu himself lost no opportunity to play up the fact that his family hails from Dhaka. Naturally, Basu spoke in Bengali at the reception in Dhaka organised to welcome the passengers from Calcutta. So did Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whereas Vajpayee addressed the audience in English. It was no surprise that the octogenarian Basu received a more generous applause than the measured, polite response reserved for Vajpayee and his entourage.

Bangladesh ministers and officials treated Basu with a courtesy that was at par with that meant for Vajpayee. Other Indian ministers, Nitish Kumar, for instance, came far behind, no matter what the protocol demanded. Basu, who came here a day before Vajpayee, relaxed in his hotel room instead of receiving the prime minister at Dhaka airport. Save the lunch hosted by Bangladesh President Shahabuddin Ahmed, they were never seen talking to each other during the entire visit.

Basu's absence at the airport invited bjp barbs, with party leader Govindacharya calling the action 'uncivilised ' . The West Bengal government sources, however, brushed aside the issue, claiming Basu had no role to play as the reception was the responsibility of the hosts.

Domestic issues notwithstanding, observers in Dhaka feel that Vajpayee, known as the most moderate face in the bjp, came here to show his genuine interest in furthering good relations with Bangladesh. 'I've come here to let you know that we sincerely want better relations with Dhaka and I'm not just saying it for the sake of saying. I mean it, '  Vajpayee told Outlook.

Asked about how he proposed to allay fears among a section of the Bangladeshi population about Indian domination, Vajpayee said, 'We'll prove our sincerity through our actions. In the 13 months during my tenure, I've not received a single complaint from your government. ' 

A Bangladesh official concurred, but he was quick to mention that the issues of transit and trade still remained a source of irritation between the two countries. And the joint news conference held by Vajpayee and Sheikh Hasina revealed that potential irritants did exist. Without directly mentioning the transit and gas export to India, Vajpayee said, 'We have also agreed on the restoration of multi-modal communications links between India and Bangladesh. This will greatly facilitate the free movement of traffic between the two countries. '  He also added, 'In our talks, we also focused on the need to provide a framework. India has accepted in principle the duty-free access on a non-reciprocal basis to select items of export interest to Bangladesh. ' 

However, Sheikh Hasina in her statement did not mention any of these issues. And she stunned the press by her somewhat daredevil approach when she chose to answer a question that was actually posed to her guest. Vajpayee was asked what he meant by augmenting Bangladesh's export items that were of interest to India and whether it meant importing gas from Bangladesh. Even before the Indian prime minister could react, pat came Sheikh Hasina's reply: 'Bangladesh will decide what it wants to export, they (India) can't decide alone ' .

Political commentators in Dhaka feel that Sheikh Hasina's measured aggression was aimed at checkmating her domestic adversaries and tell the public that she was no Indian lackey as portrayed by her bitter rival Khaleda Zia. Sheikh Hasina was apparently stung by placards carried by the students' wing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party that read: 'Go back Vajpayee along with your chief minister Hasina. '   Back in India, however, it was the other chief minister who ruffled a few feathers.

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