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Hasina faces her toughest challenge so far

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Speculations abound concerning the recent Dhaka trip of Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla. The visit has generated a degree of tension too. Countries of the South Asian region are assessing which way India-Bangladesh relations are headed. Why did such a high-profile visit taken on such a low key? Why did not any official go to the airport to receive the dignitary? Why was the timing of his meeting with the prime minister changed repeatedly?

Even after waiting for hours at the hotel, Harsh Vardhan had no idea what lay ahead. Silence prevailed over the meeting. The prime minister’s office did not make a single statement. No photographs of the meeting were released. The television reporters were told from beforehand that there would be no news coverage.

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No news was released to the media through government sources, though earlier this year there was much enthusiasm and fanfare over Shringla’s visit in March. Things were quite the opposite this time. If Harsh Vardhan was taken aback, he made no comment. That is the beauty of diplomacy. There are ruminations too as to why foreign minister Dr Momen chose this particular time to spend three days in Sylhet. Diplomatic sources say he went to Sylhet as there had been no previously scheduled meeting with the Indian foreign secretary.

It has not been possible to find out what was discussed at Gonobhaban, but whatever little has leaked out indicates that the ice hasn’t melted. Bangladesh delivered a counter message. As is said in diplomatic lingo, ‘a consensus could not be reached.’

Informed diplomats say the meeting has served to increase suspicions and doubts. And it is all about China. Delhi simply cannot accept China’s growing presence in South Asia. It is particularly concerned about the manner in which China is exerting its influence in Bangladesh. Its back is being pushed against the wall. This is not just in the economic sector, but in politics too. India was aghast to see China’s role in the election. Exactly the opposite of what they wanted, happened. China’s established its authority through the one-sided election, making Delhi all the more apprehensive.

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China had already changed its regional policy and no longer restricts itself to economic diplomacy. It had added politics to business. This has changed equations in South Asian countries. India’s monopoly in the region, it unilateral clout, is gradually on the wane, with the entrance of China on the scene. 

In recent years China has been wielding its unilateral power in the region. India has lost its grip on Nepal. It does not have a government of its choice in Sri Lanka either. All sort of tensions have developed with Bhutan. Maldives is still left, but China is not sitting idle. It is manipulating the strings. Pakistan has been the long-standing foe. India has fought three wars with Pakistan.

Bangladesh was the only country left. India and Bangladesh have historical ties. Bangladesh always recalls India’s role in the 1971 Liberation War with gratitude. There are very few Bangladeshis that question India’s role at that time, though immediately after independence seeds of suspicion sprouted. That was why, at that time, JSD’s popularity skyrocketed. However, they played the game wrong and lost out.

India’s ties with Bangladesh are not just economic, but political too. Of course, changes in the government bring about changes in relations. There hadn’t been any fluctuation in relations with Awami League. In fact, over the past 12 years, relations had reached unprecedented heights. It was not unilateral. Bangladesh extended all cooperation. Delhi also came forward. During the rule of BNP, relations plummeted to an all-time low. 

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In India, when Congress was in power, there was an outburst and overflow of relations. Even when BJP came to the helm, things did not change. So what happened that has made relations cool down between the two neighbours?

Analysts say China’s role has perturbed India. They feel that if China ensnares Bangladesh completely with its influence, India will find itself isolated. India hadn’t realized that it had always kept all its eggs in one basket. Now that a rift has appeared with its tried and tested friend, the entire Bangladesh is drifting away. The people are thinking anew.

Sheikh Hasina is not one to relinquish of this chance. There is development on one hand and politics on the other. She opts for development. Development means China’s cooperation. Naturally, things haven’t arrived at this stage overnight. Bangladesh’s mega projects are all funded by China. China’s President Xi Jinping’s Dhaka visit created a historic opportunity. India has been suspicious since then but could do nothing. After all, it too looked towards China for cooperation.

When Bangladesh bought two submarines from China, Indian media raised all sorts of questions. Many security analysts sneered at the move, asking why Bangladesh needed submarines. Who would Bangladesh wage war with? Hasina paid no heed. Things were moving behind the scenes. China was pulling the strings. An experienced Chinese diplomat remains a constant shadow. He is well known as an expert on Bangladesh. When news spread of China granting duty-free access to Bangladesh goods, Indian media made derisive remarks which elicited sharp reaction in Bangladesh.

And then when India and China fought at the Ladakh border, politics of the region underwent a change. India had hoped, even if no one else, at least Bangladesh would remain by its side. It expected Bangladesh to condemn China’s aggression. But Bangladesh surprised everyone by taking a UN-like stance, merely calling for peace. Delhi was crestfallen but did not utter a word. The Indian citizen’s act had already risen up as an irritant between the two countries, leading to the cancellation of many scheduled visits from Bangladesh.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, China adopted a new strategy. A high-powered Chinese expert delegation came to Dhaka on a two-week trip. It was said that at a juncture of time when India and China were confronting each other at the Ladakh border, an important minister of China was visiting Bangladesh, albeit in secret.

A lot went on behind the scenes regarding the trial of China’s vaccine too. Delhi raised an objection to this through its diplomatic channels. It said they would arrange for the Oxford vaccine trials to happen in Dhaka. This slowed Dhaka down a bit and the decision for China’s vaccine trial was put on hold.

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Quarters at a high level in India are concerned about China’s funding of Bangladesh. They feel if Bangladesh becomes self-sufficient, they would lose their control over the country. When China declared assistance of USD 1 billion for the Teesta project, India was devastated to see how things were slipping away.

Teesta, after all, is a sensitive issue in Bangladesh. Bangladesh made all sorts of compromises for the sake of the Teesta deal which India avoided signing on all sorts of diplomatic pretexts and pretences. When the deal was on the brink of being inked, West Bengal chief minister suddenly took a mysteriously stubborn stance against it and the deal remains in limbo. Bangladesh was disheartened and disappointed. Then China came along with an alternative proposal to maintain the water level, much to the consternation of the Indian side.

They felt now Bangladesh would have to be stopped, not China. It was decided to send Harsh Vardhan Shringla, a known expert on Bangladesh, to Dhaka. It was at Delhi’s behest that the visit took place, though the trip gave rise to a volley of questions. 

Harsha Vardhan wasn’t prepared for such a change in Dhaka over just a matter of months. It is to be seen what he says upon his return. However, the meeting will certainly rankle on his mind for a long time to come, though he didn’t express that in Dhaka. After all, he is a veteran diplomat. He didn’t reveal the actual agenda of his visit, though the India media put out bits and pieces of news in this regard.

It was hardly just vaccine diplomacy. The agendas were many, say experienced diplomats. There was no written message from Narendra Modi, but he conveyed Modi’s concerns to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Hasina’s response remains unknown, but several sources say that she sent back a counter message. Bangladesh made it clear – we are grateful, but not obliged.

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India is anxious about Pakistan too. Pakistan, rather dramatically, has become active in Dhaka. Pakistan’s diplomats had long been under strict surveillance. They had no high commissioner in Dhaka for two years. Then just when Dhaka was busy tackling coronavirus, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that Pakistani high commissioner Imran Ahmed Siddiqui had an exclusive meeting with foreign minister Dr AK Abdul Momen. This news did not appear in Bangladesh’s media. It was almost unbelievable to Delhi. Calculations pointed to China pulling the strings. China, after all, has historic ties with Pakistan. And just when all sorts of speculations were being made about this, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan made a telephone call to Sheikh Hasina. They discussed several issues. Even the Kashmir issue was discussed, though the Bangladesh side did not disclose this.

Pakistan’s media had a heyday over the issue. Indian media saw this as a defeat for Delhi. Neutral observers ask, what does Delhi want now? Some say they want to restrict China’s presence in Bangladesh and will do everything in their power to this end. They also want no interference of China in Bangladesh’s politics. 

Amidst all of this, on 15 August the Chinese embassy in Dhaka sent Begum Khaleda Zia gifts. In the past, a crack had appeared in BNP’s relations with China over the issue of opening Taiwan’s trade mission in Dhaka.

What will Sheikh Hasina do now? This is a tough challenge. Those who know Sheikh Hasina well, say she will not take any decision on the spur of the moment.  

 

Matiur Rahman Chowdhury is a senior journalist of Bangladesh, editor of the daily Manabzamin, popular TV host and renowned political and regional analyst.