America’s presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden are getting ready to face off in their first television debate tonight, in the run-up to the election for the world’s most powerful job this November. But here in New Delhi, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar knows that at least for the moment, his virtual joint consultative commission meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart A.K. Abdul Momen today is far more significant.
Bangladeshis have been time and again hit in the solar plexus by Home Minister Amit Shah’s comments describing them as “termites (deemak)” who should be thrown into the Bay of Bengal – words spoken in the heat and dust of an election campaign in 2018 and last year, but still hurtful – and it has now fallen upon Jaishankar to assuage them, to apologise without saying sorry.
As a former diplomat, Jaishankar has been trained to do precisely that for decades. Sometimes you are forced to deal with powerful, but whacky outliers — Tejasvi Surya, for example, the Bengaluru South MP who has just been made BJP youth wing president and is believed to be close to Amit Shah.
Jaishankar has so far successfully ignored unhappy beneath-the-radar murmurings by the Arab world, which, incidentally, loves Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but is dismayed by Surya’s distasteful comments about Arab women. Ignoring Surya, putting down his obnoxious comments to the fact that he’s a callow 29 years old and still wet behind the ears, is perhaps the only thing to do. He will learn – hopefully.
Amit Shah’s comments about illegal Bangladeshi migrants are far more serious, not just because it’s the PM’s closest aide and confidante making them, but because the BJP will likely make this a key issue when Assam and West Bengal go to the polls next year. Admittedly, illegal migration has been taking place for decades, so much so that the character of several Bengali districts bordering Bangladesh has changed.
The BJP is expected to try every trick in the arsenal to wrest Bengal away from Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress – to win every crucial vote, illegal migrants included.
That is why in today’s joint consultative commission meeting, the Indian foreign minister will take the “glass half-full approach”, stressing upon the joys of connectivity and the importance of growing bilateral trade that bind the two nations together.
Messages for Bangladesh
Despite Amit Shah, Jaishankar is expected to point out that the numerous rail links – six old ones plus three new ones on which work is currently underway and at least one is likely to be ready by 2021 – as well as the soon-to-be-established air bubble that will expand flights to other parts of the country, not just Kolkata, are new, important ways of incentivising legal migration from Bangladesh into India.
This is the most important aspect of the meeting : the promise of legal migration in the form of jobs — both blue collar and corporate, so that both countries benefit; versus illegal migration — mostly by poor people in search of a better life, but with little benefit from either state.
The bald, unstated message to Abdul Momen is that as the election campaign picks up in Bengal and Assam next year, expect to hear some terribly obnoxious commentary aimed at you in languages you understand – Hindi and Bengali.
A second unstated message to Momen is the treatment of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh, which India has more or less consistently ignored, especially during an election campaign – although, to Sheikh Hasina’s credit, she hasn’t allowed this to slide as badly as when BNP’s Khaleda Zia was in power.
But as Jaishankar will point out, look at the positive side. Bangladeshis, world leaders in the textile and garment industry, will soon be able to directly access India’s textiles manufacturing industry in Tirupur via a Dhaka-Chittagong-Chennai flight that will be part of the air bubble.
Once the pandemic eases, he will say, the skies are expected to be full of flights, as many as 120 a week, criss-crossing India and Bangladesh. That was the expectation pre-Covid, and both countries will still overcome, Jaishankar will add.
All in all, it’s a tough, balancing act, but one that must be done. PM Modi recognises the incredible importance of a good relationship with Bangladesh – the one with Pakistan is dead, ties with Nepal remain fragile and despite the camaraderie with Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa, he isn’t about to implement the promise of equal rights for the Tamil community under the 13th Amendment.
There’s something special about Bangladesh. Because it was created from Pakistan’s womb and because PM Sheikh Hasina, the rest of her Awami League as well as the average Bangladeshi still feel repelled by Pakistan, the Delhi-Dhaka relationship should have been a perfect tie.
Certainly, Modi wants to go to Dhaka later this year, to commemorate the end of ‘Mujib Borsho’ – he was supposed to go earlier this year, but Covid came in the way – and stand in Hasina’s Dhanmondi home, now a memorial to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and look at the fading blood-stains on the walls where each member of Hasina’s family, including her teenage brother, were mercilessly hacked to death that horrible night of 15 August 1975.
Certainly, there’s no other bond like this one, forged in blood, in memory and history. The fact that it has been fraying because of Amit Shah’s comments these past few years must now be firmly dealt with.
That’s what Jaishankar is expected to do at the joint commission meeting. He is expected to put forward the positives – the six rail links, disused since the 1965 war, of which the Modi government brought four back to life, the possibility of linking the Brahmaputra waterway with the Ganga waterway via Bangladesh, the fact that people from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are now working in Bangladesh’s IT sector, that medical tourism and textile industry will soon see a boom with the restoration of flights – and urge Abdul Momen to see that things can only get better.
Both sides are also likely to discuss a meeting of the Joint Rivers Commission that has got bogged down in the Teesta troubles since 2010 and a draft framework for water-sharing on another six rivers – Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gomti, Dharla and Dudhkumar.
Bring ties back on track
Certainly, Modi wants this done. He must realise that Amit Shah’s comments have upset a proud people. He wants this ended. The damage cannot be allowed to come in the way of what promises to be a beautiful friendship.
Moreover, with Pranab Mukherjee gone – a man who knew more about Bangladesh than any other Indian alive – the temptation of Modi’s BJP supplanting the Congress as the prime identifier is also strong. Surely, the PM will want to give in to this temptation.
Jaishankar-Momen may announce a new mechanism to oversee that all connectivity projects are completed in a time-bound manner, that the “chalta hai” days of Indian companies struggling to complete things is over, and that they are indeed ready to compete with the Chinese with whom Bangladesh is forging a brand new relationship.
Both sides understand the incredible importance of this meeting. As Momen told journalists in Dhaka Monday, “India is our neighbour and best friend. We have many things to discuss.”
Views are personal.