INDIA cannot cease to be an issue in its neighbouring countries. It is part of the baggage of being such a large country," says Kaiser Murshid, the polite and urbane former foreign secretary of Bangladesh who is now chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies. A seasoned diplomat who was director general of the India desk in the Bangladesh foreign office soon after the country was liberated from Pakistan in 1971, Murshid put the matter in a nutshell when asked about Indo-Bangladesh ties after the elections.
Murshid also has a complaint, which is shared by many Bangladeshis: "For the last seven or eight years, India's relations with Bangladesh have been on the backburner. You have been so occupied with Pakistan, J&K, Punjab and Sri Lanka, there wasn't that determination on the part of India to settle the issues with us."
The foremost question being asked in India is whether the Awami League, on assuming power, will seek an improvement in relations with Bangladesh. The answer to this question is both yes and no. Yes because it might lead to some easing of relations. No because there isn't likely to be any dramatic breakthrough in bilateral relations. Sheikh Hasina, who seems to have successfully combated the image of being pro-India in these elections, may well have to guard against charges of being out to sell the country's interests to India. But there is a paradox here. Since she was seen to be pro-India, she may be expected to extract concessions from India.
As for Murshid's complaint, it is largely true, though the reasons he ascribes to explain it are only partially responsible for this "benign neglect". And the constant tirade against India and the disinclination to seriously pursue bilateral matters by Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party only made things worse. The bottomline for India is: can it do business with Bangladesh? Though the will is there in New Delhi, a number of contentious matters plague the two countries. Apart from the Ganga waters dispute, which continues to be the most visible and contentious issue, the massive trade imbalance in India's favour is fast becoming another major issue. India would like Bangladesh to address its security concerns in the North-east, stop illegal migration from its side and work towards a transit regime. Neither side seems interested in renewing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which expires next year.
Whether water should be treated as a separate problem or should be solved as part of an Indo-Bangla package, which also addresses the issue of transit for India through Bangladesh to its north-eastern states, is also a matter of concern. Bangladeshis say there cannot be a trade-off. Says Abdur Rob Khan of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies: "I think the crux of the problem is water. We donot want a trade-off on this. If we resolve this issue, we can give a favourable image to Indo-Bangla relations."
This issue is so deeply embedded in the psyche of the people of Bangladesh that India will have to take the initiative. And Bangladesh will have to stop blaming India irrationally as Khaleda Zia did last year when she took Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani for an aerial survey of drought prone areas and said India was responsible for it. The area they surveyed was far from the area actually affected because of lack of water from the Ganga.
The trade imbalance between India and Bangladesh has shot up hugely in the last few years. Dhaka was forced by the World Bank and the IMF to liberalise fast and Indian companies were quick to take advantage of that. Now Dhaka has been demanding that India give it tariff-free access to its market. While some sections of the Indian bureaucracy have been arguing for suo moto reduction of tariff on goods from Bangladesh, it is yet to be translated into policy. According to Indian commerce ministry estimates, while India exported goods worth Rs 3,400 crore to Bangladesh in 1995-96, it imported only Rs 240 crore worth of goods from here.
While emphasising the importance of resolving the water dispute (which he says, "if we lose, India will also lose"), Murshid feels that if India were to "discriminate in favour of Bangladesh in matters of trade, it will make it easier to find solutions to other problems".