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Time to Do Deals?

With a weak political opposition and Indo-Bangladesh relations closer than they have been for a generation, Bangladesh's military regime perhaps considers this a good time to attempt a deal with New Delhi over transit facilities. On the domestic front, attempts are being made to gain legitimacy by inducing political parties to participate in the elections.

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIAaugust 2, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8Farid Bakht (faridbakht@yahoo.com) is a commentator on South Asian affairs.Time to Do Deals?Farid bakhtWith a weak political opposition and Indo-Bangladesh relations closer than they have been for a generation, Bangladesh’s military regime perhaps considers this a good time to attempt a deal with New Delhi over transit facilities. On the domestic front, attempts are being made to gain legitimacy by inducing political parties to participate in the elections.The foreign secretaries of India and Bangladesh met on July 17 and 18 in New Delhi. Prior to the event, the Indian high commissioner Pinak Chakravarty made it clear to reporters in Dhaka that the “transit” facilities and the handover of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leaders, including Anup Chetia, would be at the top of the agenda. He also said that it was difficult to understand why Bangladesh could not grant India transit facilities and was making it a political issue. Natu-rally, he would have been fully aware that the two previous democratically elected governments had failed to sign any agreement, fearful of domestic politi-cal repercussions. Discussions about east-west highways always produce evocative images of “corridors”. So why is there pressure now to conclude an agreement on transit? New Delhi-Dhaka relations are at present probably the closest they have been for a generation. Bangladesh has positioned itself as the Philippinesof south Asia. With India’s move towards a strategic partnership with the US, both New Delhi and Dhaka have a similar geopolitical orientation. Over the last 18 months, Dhaka has made no attempt to play the China card. Observing such docility, South Block may feel this is as good a time as any to test the strength of the relationship. General Moeen U Ahmed recently shunted aside general Masud Uddin, a supposed hardliner with a hawkish posi-tion on India. Now as undisputed leader, and with a friendly rapport with New Delhi and Washington, Moeen’s position has reached a peak. Another reason may be that with a debilitated political opposi-tion, desperately wanting to return to power, the next few months are the best time to “do deals”. Such treaties are con-troversial, but an unelected, brutal regime with a record of arresting over 80,000 people may be seen as an “ideal partner” compared to an elected government, vulnerable to street politics. The military-backed regime, however, knows it still has choppy waters to navigate over the nextsix months. It will be more confident if it can get through local polls and dictate events from a position of strength. Itwillthus proceed more cautiously and provide a smokescreen of “demands” to sell back home. Possibly the best time to sign contentious agreements will be late October.So, the Bangladeshi delegation favoured a comprehensive study, rather than putting pen to paper. It also tabled an impressive sounding counter list: request to reduce the trade deficit, a reciprocal transit access to Nepal, and water sharing. The trade deficit with India ($ 1.9 billion) is a source of disquiet for the business sector. While offering some long overdue concessions, the Indian position was that the range of Bangla-desh’s exports is too narrow and that it would be better to allow Indian firms to invest across the border and then “export” back to India – not the most favourable reply. Border ClashesTo underline the difficulties involved in improving ties, just as the foreign secretaries were wrapping up the summit, clashes on the border led to two members of Bangladesh Rifles being shot dead. The Indian high commissioner blamed it on a smuggling operation and took a shot at the media for sensationalising the news. Meanwhile, the government made what it termed a “strong protest”, mentioning that the high commissioner’s press statement did not explain how the two paramilitary riflemen were shot on Bangladeshi territory. The transit facility is a controversial issue and the regime will be playing with fire if it provides it to India without extracting a heavy price (tariff reductions may not cut the mustard). On the other hand, acceding to requests to hand overULFA members may be easier – while this would be reported as “caving in”, it is not a high priority political issue in the domestic arena.

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