New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be visiting Bangladesh in September, the foreign ministry announced on Monday, the first bilateral visit by an Indian premier to the neighbouring country in about a decade.
The announcement of the visit comes days after a faux pas by Singh who was quoted as telling a group of newspaper editors that one in four Bangladeshis were against India. The diplomatic snafu could potentially derail India’s plans to leverage Bangladesh as a corridor for development of the north-eastern states.
However, foreign minister S.M. Krishna, who is to travel to Bangladesh from 6-8 July, dismissed queries that the visits were a damage-control exercise. “There is no damage repair... The Prime Minister has been one of the consistent champions of India-Bangladesh relations,” the minister said.
“My visit was confirmed sometime earlier. The Prime Minister’s visit was in the pipeline... This was being talked about and confirmed,” he said referring to the invitation extended to Singh by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her 2010 New Delhi visit.
Krishna added his visit was “preparatory” to that of Singh. “I propose to review progress in the entire gamut of our bilateral relations with my interlocutors... India attaches utmost importance to its relations with Bangladesh—a close and friendly neighbour,” he said.
According to the transcript posted by the Prime Minister’s Office on its website, Singh who met five senior editors on 30 June as part of an image-building exercise after his government was bruised by a series of corruption scandals, said “(With) Bangladesh, our relations are quite good. But we must reckon that at least 25% of the population of Bangladesh swear by the Jamaat-ul-Islami (viewed by Indian intelligence as a radical Islamist group) and they are very anti-Indian and they are in the clutches, many times, of the ISI (Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence).”
The remarks were intended to be off the record and later deleted.
But the immediate diplomatic damage could not be prevented; the Jamaat, which is in the political opposition in Bangladesh, reacted sharply.
“The comment of Indian premier that Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami is anti-Indian, and acts in accordance with advice of the ISI is false, baseless and it does not go with the status of the premier,” said Jamaat acting secretary general Azharul Islam in a statement. The party believed in the principle of having a good relationship with India maintaining Bangladesh’s independence, sovereignty and interests, it said, blaming Indian intelligence agencies for confusing Singh with misinformation.
India-Bangladesh relations have improved significantly since the election of the India-friendly Sheikh Hasina to office in December 2008. Bangladesh cracked down on anti-India insurgents from India’s north-east who had been sheltered in that country. During Hasina’s 2010 visit, both sides identified a number of infrastructure projects to be undertaken under the $1 billion line of credit extended by India, including for Bangladesh Railways and procurement of buses for Dhaka city. Both sides are working on inter-grid connectivity and setting up power plants under joint ventures.
Singh called Sheikh Hasina later in the day to say how much he was looking forward to his September visit, a foreign ministry statement said. Hasina on her part said she personally and the people of Bangladesh were waiting eagerly to receive him and there were high expectations from the visit, which she hoped would be a historic one.
Separately, a statement from the Bangladeshi high commission in New Delhi said Singh’s visit is expected to “infuse fresh dynamism into the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional relationship between the two countries.”
Analyst C.U. Bhaskar, head of the National Maritime Foundation think tank, said the fact that the prime minister of India made such a comment called for introspection on India’s Bangladesh policy. “India has treated Bangladesh in a less than appropriate manner, India has been found wanting,” he said. “It goes to the credit of the Bangladeshi leadership and diplomats that the relationship has remained stable so far. I would say Bangladesh is an important country, it is the most important interlocutor for India for the next five years.”
H.K. Dua, media advisor to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, blamed those managing the Prime Minister’s website for the “blunder”. “Something that is off the record should not have been put on the website where it becomes public information,” he said.
Last year, Singh’s off-the-record remarks on China—that Beijing could be tempted to use India’s “soft underbelly” of Kashmir and Pakistan “to keep India in low equilibrium” raised a furore when The Times of India quoted Singh.