Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will take a deep breath when he climbs into Air India One early next week, on the short flight to Dhaka. Flying time is barely a couple of hours, on par with Mumbai and shorter than to Bangalore. However, the two-day trip to the capital of Bangladesh constitutes much more than a much-needed break for the politically embattled prime minister at home.
It is India’s most ambitious initiative yet in seeking to alter the paradigm of history and reshaping its eastern flank, so as to allow Delhi to take charge of the faltering growth story at home and prove that the Indian economic engine has enough gas left in it to positively impact its immediate neighbours.
So here’s the beef: two major agreements are likely to be signed with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a land boundary pact as well as a trade liberalisation initiative. In the first, the letter and spirit of the 1974 Indira Gandhi-Mujibur Rahman land boundary agreement will finally be fulfilled, with both governments agreeing to demarcate the remaining 2.5 kilometres (kms) of the international boundary (from the more than 4,000 kms that makes up the entire boundary line between the two countries), as well as agree that each country will absorb the ‘enclaves’ and ‘adverse possessions’ that have existed in the other’s territory all these decades, like suppurating sores.
Bangladesh gains a mere 10,000 acres of land once the ribbons are cut and the trumpeting fades into the Chittagong hill tracts. Much more importantly, it recovers the face it had lost in the intervening years in front of its own people, when it would advocate that India was being overbearing and arrogant and therefore must be taught a lesson. That really was the nub of the distance between Delhi and Dhaka. The land disputes were just a very convenient peg on which to hang the bilateral dissonance.
What is interesting is that it was Sheikh Hasina who showed Manmohan Singh, and not the other way round, that it was possible to rise above petty conflict and small-minded bureaucratic mindsets to be able to create history.
Manmohan Singh’s upcoming trip to Dhaka from September 6-7 can only be described as ‘historic’ because it has the capacity to recognise the problems that existed and fix them, thereby igniting the imagination of all of South Asia.
In fact, one of the world’s poorest countries is already showing a feisty market like India that it is possible to challenge its (India’s) dominance, especially in the textile sector, and teach it a thing or two.
The good news is that India is listening. All these years, Delhi behaved like a lower division accounting clerk, doing the export-import sums. For the first time, in the coming week, Delhi has agreed to demolish all the items on the negative list pertaining to textiles, thereby in one wave of the wand dismantling the Indian textile sector’s protectionist walls.
It is important to remember that in the new world order that is beginning to emerge, in the wake of the continuing recession in the West, the recognition abounds that economics is the new politics. The colour of your money will determine how you fare both at home and abroad.
If India and Bangladesh can touch the sky, they could inspire the rest of the subcontinent. The East has been red for some time, now may be the time to recognise it.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 4th, 2011.