Courting the other begum

It is an open secret that relations between India and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have not been good. Indeed, bilateral relations went through their most difficult period when the BNP was in power, and its leader Khaleda Zia was the Prime Minister. India’s list of complaints against her government was long. Topmost was the allegation that the BNP government was providing shelter to the leaders of Indian insurgent groups and not cracking down on militant outfits such as the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. The ruling coalition denied the existence of such groups on its soil, and described the allegations as a conspiracy against Bangladesh. Tensions between India and Bangladesh were palpable, and New Delhi was noticeably relieved when the BNP government was voted out and Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came to power in the elections at the end of 2008. The previous government was shown up badly when soon after taking charge, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lost no time in banning several Islamist militant groups. She also promptly handed over important ULFA leaders to India, which led to the Assam militant group’s decision to give up its separatist goals and begin talks with the Indian government. The historical affinity between the Congress and the Awami League has also helped to smoothen out bilateral ties. So it is noteworthy that Begum Khaleda visited New Delhi earlier this month — her first trip since 2006 when she was Prime Minister — and that both sides now seem keen to put the acrimony of the past behind them.

Of course, it is no coincidence that her weeklong India visit came at a time when political parties in Bangladesh are preparing for elections, which are likely to be held in late 2013. The visit has given both sides the opportunity to see where each stands vis-à-vis the other, and on issues important to both. In this regard, the statement by the BNP leader that the party is mindful of Indian concerns on terrorism, insurgency and other security-related issues, is welcome reassurance should the party be voted to power in the next elections. For his part, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has indicated that India is committed to developing good relations with Bangladesh, irrespective of which party is in power. Sheikh Hasina’s government has been good for India, but it has courted unpopularity at home through costly missteps, particularly the decision to scrap the system of a caretaker government to oversee elections. New Delhi is quite right to be making the effort to broaden its outreach among Bangladeshi political parties, especially the BNP, and shake off the impression that it backs only the Awami League.

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