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Passage of India, Bangladesh border law game changer in South Asia: Veena Sikri

Veena Sikri says that when you have something as tricky as this solved, then other issues—be it connectivity, trade, security or economic investment—can also be tackled. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/MintPremium
Veena Sikri says that when you have something as tricky as this solved, then other issues—be it connectivity, trade, security or economic investment—can also be tackled. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh on the boundary pact with Bangladesh and how it proves Narendra Modi is a leader who walks the talk

New Delhi: Last week, Parliament unanimously passed the constitutional amendment to operationalize the long-pending Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh. The agreement, which had been awaiting ratification by India for 41 years, aims to ensure proper demarcation of the border and an exchange of more than 160 enclaves between the two countries. By approving implementation of LBA, India has shed its “big brother" tag and acquired an “elder brother" status in South Asia, says Veena Sikri, a former high commissioner to Bangladesh. The move has also given a fillip to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “neighbourhood first" foreign policy and proved he is a leader who walks the talk, she said. Edited excerpts:

Parliament has given its go-ahead to the implementation of LBA 41 years after it was initially signed. What does this say about the Modi government? How will countries in South Asia interpret this?

Prime Minister Modi has walked the talk. He announced a “neighbourhood first foreign policy" focus and he has acted on that by overcoming opposition within his own political party to LBA. It’s his way of saying that the promise to the Bangladesh prime minister is more important than differences in Assam or maybe a political victory in the next local elections. In short, he has walked the talk and this has had a great impact. I have never seen this kind of positive coverage on India from Bangladesh; there are some people who have a negative view, but across the board, it’s been positive reactions from across South Asia as well. There is no one who can fault India or Modi’s leadership on this because he has actually ended a problem that began in 1947. It augurs well for other such problems that may arise. For example, if Nepal has an issue with India, it will say we can go to Modi and he will solve it. The same goes for Afghanistan or Maldives, if either of them has a problem.

Will the ratification of LBA be a game changer in ties with Bangladesh?

I think it will be a game changer because, after all, everything in the neighbourhood is based on perception. A Bangladeshi paper mentioned it, and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said it in her speech in the Lok Sabha too, that the image of India and that of Modi was akin to that of an elder brother and not a big brother. I think that is significant: when it is an elder brother, the relationship is one of friendship, of respect, of understanding. A big brother, on the other hand, implies hegemony. It’s a game changer because this softening of India’s leadership role shows that we want good relations with neighbours and we are prepared to solve problems in a spirit of friendship. This message will certainly be taken on board by other neighbours when they look at solving problems with India and moving ahead in the same spirit. When you have something as tricky as this solved, then other issues—be it connectivity, trade, security or economic investment—can also be tackled.

How does it help India’s image in Bangladesh? And how does it help Sheikh Hasina?

The biggest feedback is the positive change in the psyche of the Bangladeshi people: they now know that Modi means business. There was a lot of scepticism when Modi was made prime minister as they felt the Congress party was better for Bangladesh. When Modi invited leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to his swearing-in (on 26 May 2014), it made a bit of a difference, but now this has made a huge difference. For Sheikh Hasina, it’s a clear positive as Bangladesh has benefited from the pact (for India, it’s a notional loss of territory).

How will all this impact Islamist parties’ view of India? There are many others who are opposed to India in Bangladesh. Will the go-ahead to LBA help shore up India’s image?

The political opposition in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has welcomed the agreement. The Jamaat-e-Islami is the Islamist fundamentalist party. There are a whole lot of extremist groups that have sprouted in Bangladesh and they have been getting varying degrees of support. But I think a step like this will bring in a lot of support to (Sheikh Hasina’s) Awami League. If you look at the political structure in Bangladesh, the Awami League has roughly 33% of the vote, the BNP has 33%, and then there is the undecided lot. A little of this goes to the Islamists, a little goes to other political parties. About 25% of the vote swings every time there is an election. This vote is mostly a young vote, one that is looking for a stable economy. Every time there is an election in Bangladesh, these voters have shown that they are not really interested in fundamentalist parties or in the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami and its offshoots. The Islamist parties have always had a small vote share, never more than 8-9%. So people are not too keen on such parties. That does not mean that the fringe has given up. But there is a growing feeling in favour of a secular democratic republic. People who want this are also Muslims, but they don’t see any problem in reconciling religious beliefs with a secular country where all can live together.

How will LBA help India’s Act East Policy?

Geopolitically, Bangladesh is very strategically located. It is certainly a very important component of India’s Act East Policy. Bangladesh is significant to the development of India’s North-East. The terrain in the North-East is difficult, so if you want development, a lot of it would have to come by investing in Bangladesh, creating products there and taking those products to the North-East. It makes a lot of sense to set up manufacturing in Bangladesh, and from there send goods to the north east.

Last year, India accepted the award of an international tribunal on the delimitation of a maritime boundary with Bangladesh. This year, there is the go-ahead to LBA. Can these two serve as templates for dispute settlement in the rest of South Asia?

Of course. In Pakistan, the feeling is that India will never settle disputes. India is viewed as a country that loves to have disputes with neighbours. With India actually settling its disputes with Bangladesh, Pakistan can no longer proffer the excuse that India isn’t interested. So, the focus is on Pakistan.

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