Cooler Heads And Calmer Borders

Iftekhar Ahmed ChowdhuryChowdhury_new
Senior Research Fellow, ISAS

The past few weeks have been good for inter-state relations among the otherwise quibbling South Asian states. This refers to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Heads have remained cool and borders have remained calm. This is not the norm. So how has this come about? The answer is a series of events that suddenly combined as a constellation of forces that created this favourable environment. The good news is that these do not simply constitute a ‘black-swan’ phenomenon that happened by accident. On the contrary these were the results of carefully calibrated strategies. The bad news, however, is that their sustainability is not ensured.

No major problems have been resolved. However, the past month witnessed a range of these being systematically addressed. The upshot has been a lessening of tensions between and among them. Granted peace is not the absence of war, but the absence of war is a prerequisite for peace. And admittedly the signs of war, or at least of shooting across frontiers, were ebbing along the borders. This was particularly true between India and Pakistan. The Indian side behaved most maturely in the aftermath of the second Mumbai by not pointing fingers at Pakistan immediately. The reward was ‘glam-slam’ visit to Delhi by the young lady Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Hina Rabbani Khar, which was reminiscent of and equaled in cheer and charm Jacqueline Kennedy’s trip to a swooning India in 1962! The Khar visit was most certainly not all play either and left a sweet taste in the mouth when it was over. For over a year India and Pakistan has not had such substantive and focused discussions. Khar spoke of the changed ‘mind-set’ of a new generation on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani divide that no longer carried the baggage of past acrimony!

On the Pakistani side of the divide, however, there may be another reason altering the mind-set of all generations, young and old! It is that 69 per cent of the Pakistanis now view the US, still a technical ally, as the main threat and the West as the main enemy. These perceptions developed out of the experiences in Afghanistan, the ‘drone’ attacks in Pakistan, the attack in Abbottabad leading to Bin Laden’s death and a general sense of frustration. So to them India may have slipped from the top of the list of critical adversaries. So ironically the deterioration of the Pakistani relationship with the US may be aiding the Indo-Pak détente. Yet this is not a thesis that may yet be carried too far given the volatile history of the bilateral relations.

Between Bangladesh and India, while the nature of the animosity was not that sharp, suspicions had always persisted. In Bangladesh the non-partisan care-taker government that preceded the current Awami League led coalition perceived the ‘realpolitik’ reasons for cooperative links with India, and India responded with the intellectual acceptance of a disproportionate ‘non-reciprocal’ responsibility for improving ties. The Awami League, seen to be more understanding and certainly more tolerant of India, carried it forward. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India in 2010, and is expecting to host her Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh in early September. A raft of agreements on a range of issues, including water and transit, is likely to be signed then. Meanwhile last month a parade of Indian leaders – the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and Home, and the Congress chief Mrs. Gandhi herself made trips to Dhaka, the latter to receive an award that honoured her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi for her role in the liberation of Bangladesh. However, the main Bangladeshi opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, remains unpersuaded. Nonetheless, with increasing Bangladeshi socio-economic successes and burgeoning extra-regional linkages, political ‘Indo-centrism’ is likely to have a diminished role. In other words, the ‘India-factor’ will have lesser marshalling potentials for political parties. That could have positive ramifications for Indo-Bangladesh relations.

The current US fiscal crisis and the economic dilemmas Europe confronts could mean a lesser presence of these two major powers in the global politico-economic arena in the near future. This would almost force the rest of the world to work out their own regional and global policies. This would also provide an opportunity to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to behave like a harmonious threesome that would redound to the benefit of all. It would be a challenge to Indian diplomacy to craft such a possibility into fruition. India will need to muster the capability to take the lead, clearly possible for this large nation on the rise, but the others will also need to bear their respective share of responsibility.

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Transit, the Great Wall of India and Indo-Bangla Relations

M. Shahidul Islamshahid1
Research Associate, ISAS

Like most border-sharing neighbours the relations between India and Bangladesh have seen highs and lows owing to structural problems and cyclical issues. However, the Indo-Bangla ties have improved markedly in recent years, particularly following the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government’s return to power in December 2008. The joint communiqué signed by the two countries during the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s visit to India in January 2010 has paved way for a new trajectory in India-Bangladesh relations.

As far as regional connectivity is concerned, notably transit, there are some encouraging developments. Sheikh Hasina’s government took a political risk by granting transit to India. As per the agreement, Bangladesh will allow use of Mongla and Chittagong sea ports for movement of goods to and from India through road and rail. This might prompt many to believe that the Indo-Bangla transit deal is likely to open a new era in South Asia’s regional connectivity. However, political rhetoric may hide the reality. To what extent New Delhi wants to engage with Bangladesh is an issue that deserves a closer look.

While the transit and transhipment facilities are likely to benefit India by slashing down its transportation cost drastically, Bangladesh also stands to gain if an agreement is made on service fees. Dhaka and Delhi have not capitalised on the momentum created towards regional connectivity by dealing with the issues in a transparent manner.

Moreover, economists are of the opinion that while transit facilities are essential to increase regional connectivity, there is a need for strong trade relations between Bangladesh and the northeastern region (which is geographically more intimate with Bangladesh than its mainland) to sustain the relations. If natural trade between the two regions is not allowed, the illicit trade and extremism in the borders may not be contained.

Moreover, the Indian authorities are implementing a mega project by fencing of its border with Bangladesh which often touted as the “Great Wall of India”. India’s two-pronged approach concerning Bangladesh is that on the one hand it asks for transit facilities for better connectivity in the region and on the other hand fences the border. This has cast doubts on New Delhi’s commitment to engage with Dhaka. Moreover, it was expected that in line with improved bilateral ties the Indian security forces would demonstrate some restraint on the border. However, a recent report shows that Indian border guards killed 136 Bangladeshis since January 2009.

The present government in Bangladesh has adopted a new paradigm as far as its regionalism approaches are concerned. It now wants to engage New Delhi in various infrastructure projects that should involve only Myanmar and China. Newspaper reports reveal that Dhaka intends to involve India in the proposed Chittagong-Myanmar-Kunming tri-nation road link. Moreover, the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister of late opined that Dhaka would happily agree to Indian involvement in deep seaport development project in Chittagong, although New Delhi is far behind Beijing both in terms of financial and technical capacities.

AL’s over reliance on New Delhi is understandable. This is largely due to the polarisation of politics in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) does not have good ties with New Delhi, which makes Beijing a natural partner for the party in South Asian geo-politics. On the other hand, historically AL’s relations with India have been very warm and the party does not want to disturb its terms with New Delhi even if they come at the cost of the country’s interest. As a result, the relations between the two countries have not been institutionalised.

Against the will of common people the foreign policy of the current government in Bangladesh focuses primarily on India at the cost of developing strong ties with other major powers. The masses desire better bilateral ties with New Delhi, but at the same time would not like Bangladesh to be treated as a “satellite state” of India.

So, what is the immediate future of Indo-Bangla relations? So long as AL is in power, the current policy is likely to continue. If BNP returns to power in the next general elections (owing to an anti-incumbency factor) then in the presence of the structural flaws in relations between the two countries, the progress made in recent years might come to naught.

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The Crisis of Governance in South Asia

M. Shahidul Islamshahid1
Research Associate, ISAS

While the developments in Pakistan in the past decade as far as its governance issues are concerned are highly disturbing, the situation is not very rosy in other parts of South Asia either. The other dominant countries of South Asia have had democratic governments installed but the state of governance in all the concerned countries (i.e., India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) has become a matter of serious concern in recent times.

The Congress-led UPA government in India has been subject to much criticism in recent months when the media revealed, among others, a number of high profile scams involving politicians and corporate houses. Indeed with mounting corruption allegations and poor governance, the fiscal year 2010-11 was nothing short of an annus horribilis for the Singh government. The nexus between politics and business largely owing to corporate interest has severely undermined good governance, ethos of politics and equity-based growth in South Asia’s largest country. The magnitude of the 2-G scam alone is larger than the total GDP of Nepal. If one is concerned about the India Cables released by the wikileaks, which India’s influential daily the Hindu posted on its website, the level of political and corporate corruptions in India shows no sign of abatement.

In Bangladesh’s 2008 elections, the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) returned to power with a two-third majority. However, under her leadership, if not dictatorship, the country’s state of governance has hit an all time low since the nation’s transition to democracy in 1990. Practically all organs of the state have been highly politicised. The government is accused of amending Bangladesh’s constitution in line with AL’s political interests. The anti-corruption commission has been made ineffective. “For my friends, anything; for my enemies, the law” is the mantra of the ruling government.

The issue of war crimes, violation of human rights and the question of Tamil integration have put the Sri Lankan government under severe international pressure since the war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended in May 2009. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is accused of concentrating power both for his family and himself. The 18th Amendment to the constitution is being called a de facto constitutional coup. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the amendment gives Rajapaksa a very real chance of remaining in power indefinitely.

The available governance indicators also support the state of poor governance in South Asia. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators – voice and accountability, political stability, governance effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption – shows that in all but voice and accountability benchmarks, South Asia’s governance quality has deteriorated in recent years.

Interestingly, the state of governance in South Asia is deteriorating at a time when the key economies of South Asia bar Pakistan demonstrated extraordinary economic growth in recent decade led by India.

While the nexus between economic growth and corruption (an inverse function of good governance) is inconclusive, the relations between the two variables in South Asia perhaps resemble an inverted U-shaped Kuznets curve (the concept originally introduced to explain inequality) implying that corruption increases over time while a country is developing, and then after a certain average income is attained, corruption begins to decrease.

South Asia’s recent experience with regards to governance problems generate some food for thought that can be studied further for the wider benefit of the region:

1.      Is South Asia’s rapid economic growth creating more room for corruption that is deteriorating the region’s state of governance?

2.      In the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan, it is argued that due to the lack of good institutions, corruption perhaps greases growth in the short run to some extent but in the long-run it costs growth. However, India’s high growth rates make the issue more complex and puzzling.

3.      While the causes of poor governance in South Asia are not unique, the country specific reasons stand out. Corporate interests in India, political interests in Bangladesh, ethnic issues in Sri Lanka and military interests in Pakistan are perhaps four broad areas that affect the governance structures of South Asia adversely.

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