We're Live Bangla Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Interview: “I hope India would do more to fulfill the hopes of Dhaka”: Harsh V Panth

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Harsh V Panth: The new Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh.

You speak about maintaining strong ties between India and Bangladesh. But many questions arise about these relations.

It is nothing unusual for such questions to arise about these questions. Bangladesh and India’s ties are a shining example of durable partnership between to close neighbours. Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina came to Delhi and openly expressed her difference of opinion. A lot is happening in geopolitics and geo-economics at the moment and various polarisations are taking place among different countries. This visit at this juncture is significant. Being able to speak openly about all this despite so many challenges, reflects the strength of relations. The top leaderships of the two countries have taken many steps to take these relations further ahead. Their message to the bureaucracy is that further initiatives must be taken in necessary, for the sake of these ties.

Just as the Covid crisis was being overcome, Russia entered a war with Ukraine. This war has affected the entire world, including this region. What is your analysis?

There were many certainties before Covid. China was growing. A lot of funds had been available from the country. China would reach out to provide support in infrastructure and connectivity. But Covid came along and shook economy, politics, everything. India had been known as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, but it then revealed that its drug manufacturing had been considerably dependent on China for raw materials. This is a sort of contradiction. The global economic network is going through curious times. Before we would say, come let’s be friends and do business. Now we say, let’s do business among friends. Let’s do business among like-minded friends. If you do not have confidence in your partner, you will not want to share your technology. The nature of the economic framework has changed.

When free market economy began to flourish in the nineties, it was said, let China grow. Do business with it. Based on the Sri Lankan experience, some South Asian countries are now reassessing their partnership with China. If the foundation of the economy is shaky and there is a burden or debt, all sorts of risks can arise. Sri Lanka collapsed as it couldn’t bear the burden of loans. What had been in theory before, now became true. And needless to say, this economic crisis led to political crisis in Sri Lanka. Overall, the political crisis came out in the open in post-Covid times. That means a new political understanding is required. This is happening in places. The coming days will reveal what Imran Khan’s equation will be with the army in Pakistan and how the communists in Nepal will proceed in the changed circumstances.

Let’s turn to Bangladesh-India relations. Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina recently visited India. How would you evaluate this visit in the context of water, the border, trade, energy and connectivity?

Firstly, it is essential for India to establish a stable and prosperous northeast region. Next, India needs connectivity with Southeast Asia. This is India’s strategic priority. So, regional connectivity is extremely important for India. This is important in the economic context too. Bangladesh can avail the northeast facilities. In India’s next step, it is to set up connectivity with Southeast Asia, bringing Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand on board too. It will not be possible for India to implement this without regional partnerships. I see no problem in any consensus here. The problem lies in how this will be implemented. How realistic will it be and how restricted will be it be. These issues were raised in the talks between the two countries this time too. The high-level talks between the two countries have become too symbolic now. There is communication at regular intervals between the leadership of the two countries. Overall, the meetings between political leadership have become a regular affair. That is why I no longer evaluate such high level meetings on the basis of any statement. Previously such high level meetings would be held once in every five years. But now a stage had been reached where such meetings are normal. India’s prime minister and president visited Bangladesh last year. This time Sheikh Hasina came to India. She openly talked about the challenges. I would hope that India would do something more to fulfill the hopes of Dhaka.

In recent times India has visibly uncomfortable about China. China is brought up when it comes to Bangladesh-India relations. India’s media highlights this at regular intervals. Then again, China speaks against Bangladesh joining Quad or IPS. How do you view this?

China will have a position in South Asia’s geopolitics. Whether we like it or not, is not an important matter here. This influence, this presence of China will not diminish any time soon. China has economic strength and diplomatic strength. We have been often seeing China’s aggressive attitude in recent times. It has entered South Asia and the Indian Ocean. In turn, India is taking steps to keep China at a distance. This competition between India and China in South Asia will continue. There is no scope to imagine anything else. Both these expanding countries are forging ahead. India may not be as powerful as China, but it has ample strength to keep it away from this region. India will keep this up.

It is to be seen what the role is of the smaller countries of this region. They are quite adroitly choosing which side will be more beneficial for them. They are considering how to use one against the other. I think Bangladesh has displayed the most intelligence here. While maintaining close ties with India, it has also joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China seems to have done away with the soft diplomacy it had in the nineties and has become aggressive. But it is damaging itself in this manner. However, this competition between China and India will continue. This competition between the two countries will pose as a challenge to the smaller countries of this region.

Will the small countries maintain a safe distance?

If any country including Bangladesh, or even India, say that they will not do business with China, that would be sheer madness. Unless it stays connected with a country like China, India will not be able to become a trillion dollar economy in the next decade. China is not just India’s neighbor, it is undoubtedly a regional power as well. The problem here, I feel, is how the norms are being determined. Sri Lanka's experience has taught us a lesson. As China dominated there, everything was one-sided. As a result, Sri Lanka created the problem for itself. India is not saying it will not do business with China. It is saying it will do business, but a balance must be brought to the trade imbalance. This is important for all countries, not just India alone. India’s opposition to BRI is not ideological. The question is how appropriate are the projects under this.

Your latest book is ‘India and Global Governance: A Rising Power and Its Discontents’. With reference to that, this question is , how do you see the attitude of the neighbouring countries, particularly politically and the attitude of the people, towards India?

India can be partially blamed for past events. There are two sides to this. One is the psychological conflict between a large state and small states. The other is, India is a part of the domestic politics of most of these countries. That is why you will often see in South Asian countries the opposition throws a challenge at their governments, accusing them to be ‘proxies’ of India, running the countries on behalf of India. This idea exists among the people too. For India the dilemma is how to be involved with the various countries and to what extent. Questions have arisen as to whether India is creating internal problems for itself by its close ties with Sheikh Hasina. Relations have to be taken beyond the official level. If necessary, a little extra must be done. It is these extra steps that will prove India’s generosity to the neighbouring countries.