There were the realities that were not to be missed about Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh. Not a single cabinet minister accompanied him. A political tradition which dictates that the foreign minister of a country accompany its head of government abroad simply went missing here. Sushma Swaraj, no fan of Modi but suitably caged as India’s foreign minister, was not with her leader in Dhaka. There was a phalanx of bureaucrats and businessmen, along with a large group of India’s media people, who descended on Bangladesh’s capital to see their prime minister in action.
And Narendra Modi was indeed in hyperactive mode. His trip was a powerful reassertion of contemporary political thought that only Modi matters in India. Save for Arun Jaitley, no cabinet minister speaks out of turn. Indeed, no minister speaks. It is always Modi. He has been to eighteen countries since taking charge of India more than a year ago. In those lands and at home, he has carefully developed and cultivated, in all the subtlety he can muster, a cult of personality that surely cannot be missed. That Modi speaks for India, that at this point in time he seeks to symbolise the spirit of India, is what comes through. And it came through in Dhaka in all its vibrancy.
And Bangladesh went out on a limb to welcome him with effusiveness not seen in a very long time. Back in March 1972, tens of thousands of grateful Bengalis turned out to welcome Indira Gandhi and for good reason here in Dhaka. Had she not been around in 1971 or had she adopted a hands-off position on the Bangladesh question, history may well have turned out differently. But she was there, speaking for a struggling people in the councils of the world. On 16 December 1971, she informed a cheering Indian parliament, “Dhaka is today the free capital of a free country.”
In 1972, it was a true friend in times of need we welcomed here in Dhaka. Forty three years on, it was Narendra Modi on whom Bengalis showered their affection and, to a certain extent, their gratitude. The affection and the gratitude were directly linked to the Modi government’s swift, decisive action in having the Land Boundary Agreement, negotiated by Indira Gandhi and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1974, ratified by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The ratification came a little late in the day, the delay altogether amounting to forty-one years. But where none of his predecessors could convince India’s politicians down the years that morality demanded a full, unqualified adoption of the LBA, Modi went ahead and did the job. And so Bangladesh’s people were on standby to welcome him with open arms on Saturday.
And yet that mood of welcome was also linked to the expectation that Prime Minister Modi might just spring a surprise around the Teesta question in the course of his stay in Dhaka. Realism of course dictated that hopes need not be raised to a level where a failure to meet them would result in grave disappointment. And, yes, there were the pragmatists in Bangladesh circles who readily comprehended the truth that Modi would not deliver Teesta to us on this trip. Miracles, they said, did not happen anymore. But there were those who did not quite agree. For them, miracles never cease.
Observe the presence of Mamata Banerjee in Dhaka. Back in 2011, she publicly refused to join Manmohan Singh on his visit to Bangladesh; and thus what could well have been a moment of glory for both Bangladesh and India, in the shape of a deal on Teesta water-sharing, did not come to pass.
This time around, for all her visceral dislike of Modi, Banerjee did not engage in a public quarrel. Of course, she arrived separately and stayed in separate accommodation. That did not matter for our miracle-seekers. She was in town with her nation’s leader. Could something of a positive note be happening? In the end, nothing happened. Unlike Manmohan Singh, though, Narendra Modi was not ready to give anyone the idea that Teesta was once again a failure. He sweetened the non-happening with pious expressions of hope and promise. The matter of Teesta water-sharing, he told his hosts, would be resolved. Bengalis need not worry. Much good, in other areas, had come of this visit, hadn’t it?
As many as twenty two agreements had been initialled, a deal on energy was reached with Reliance and Adani, bus services between Dhaka and places like Guwahati were inaugurated. Both Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina renewed their commitment to a secure, terrorism-free South Asia. These were certainly achievements that strengthened the old bonds between the two countries. And they held out the possibility that sooner or later, sooner rather than later, Delhi and Dhaka would arrive at a mutually acceptable deal on the sharing of the Teesta waters. The Indian prime minister held out that possibility at what turned out to be his valedictory address at Bangabandhu International Conference Centre before flying back home. Abar aashibo — will come again — he told his already starstruck audience. The applause was loud … and became louder.
Narendra Modi’s visit began — and ended — on a groundswell of excitement interspersed with irony. It was irony when Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali confidently informed the media that there was no possibility of the Indian leader scheduling a meeting with former prime minister Khaleda Zia. Minutes later came the announcement from the Indian side that indeed a meeting between Modi and Begum Zia was on the cards.
The alacrity with which Bangladesh’s ministers often go for indiscreet comments boggles the mind. Four years ago, Ali’s predecessor Dipu Moni ignored the clear statements coming out of Delhi and Kolkata prior to the Manmohan Singh visit on a non-possibility of any deal on the Teesta and insisted that a deal would be signed by Sheikh Hasina and India’s then leader. Bangladesh’s government was left red in the face.
Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party produced their own version of irony through their desperate seeking of an audience with Narendra Modi. Not long ago, the BNP chief declined to call on visiting Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on the ground that a hartal called by her ally the Jamaat-e-Islami on the day precluded her moving out of her home. Security, her own, was cited as the reason. And yet on a visit to Delhi earlier, Begum Zia needed to meet President Mukherjee, who graciously obliged her.
The bigger irony, again from the BNP, came through its complaint to Prime Minister Modi about an absence of democracy in Bangladesh, about political repression being the dominant factor in the nation’s politics. It was standard BNP approach. It has complained to the Americans, it has complained to the European Union, it has complained to the United Nations.
And now it has complained to India, a country it has regularly bashed in the interest of its parochial politics. And why would Narendra Modi be signing deals with Sheikh Hasina if there was no democracy in Bangladesh, if indeed the Bangladesh government was constituted illegally? Politics is not amusement. And yet amusement was writ large on Prime Minister Modi’s expression as Khaleda Zia read out from her list of grievances at his hotel suite. Here was a Bengali politician asking, once more, a foreigner to help her advance her brand of politics in her country.
And the final irony? Prime Minister Narendra Modi flies in from Delhi, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee arrives from Kolkata. Both meet in Dhaka, talk to each other — beyond the acrimony of their politics back home — and go out together to see Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a bdnews24.com columnist.