Bangladesh-India: Khaleda Zia's visit a sign of changing times
Delhi rolled out the red carpet for a Bangladeshi opposition leader known for her strong nationalistic stances and anti-India rhetoric. Khaleda Zia and her party, meanwhile, are speaking of a "new chapter" and promising to build on better bilateral ties.
Former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia wrapped up her weeklong visit to India on Saturday (November 3rd), pledging she would do her best to further strengthen relations between the two countries. The warm reception she received may have surprised some, given Zia's past penchant for strong anti-Delhi rhetoric, as well as accusations that she supported, during her previous tenures as prime minister, extremist organisations that threaten India.
But the two South Asian nations have forged closer ties in recent years, and Indian officials say they want to make sure the momentum continues if Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) wins the next general elections in Bangladesh, set for 2014.
"We think that by engaging leaders representing all shades of opinion in South Asia, the dream of harnessing economic and social potential through co-operation will be realised," Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told Khabar South Asia.
Speaking to Khabar, a senior BNP leader also sounded bullish about the diplomatic prospects.
"India is a very important country for us and we want to open a 'new chapter' towards settling all outstanding bilateral problems in a friendly way," Mahbubur Rahman, told Khabar. "Separatism is one of the big concerns of India. And she (Zia) has rightly expressed her readiness to help India in this regard. But we would also expect Delhi to reciprocate our gesture so that they do not harbour any anti-Bangladesh elements."
Analysts in Bangladesh say Zia recognises that bilateral co-operation would be key to the success of any future BNP administration.
"It is a fact of life that any party must earn India's confidence to stay in power as our water security, food security, energy security, environmental security and other issues are heavily reliant on her," former Bangladesh diplomat Harun ur Rashid told Khabar.
Reassurances about militancy
For years, Zia has been distrusted in India because officials there believe her administration – during her two tenures as prime minister, from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006 – allowed separatist and terrorist groups to use Bangladeshi territory to mount cross-border operations.
But comments she made during the recent visit seem designed to assure Delhi that times have changed. Zia declared that she wants to look forward and not dwell on the past – a remark interpreted in India as an acknowledgment of India's concerns.
Former Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said marginalising Zia and the BNP has not done much to solve the problem of militancy.
"In the past, India kept Khaleda at bay, which only pushed the BNP deeper into the embrace of anti-India groups. But Khaleda herself is changing now. She has given interviews in recent days openly admitting to the 'mistakes' inherent in her anti-India stance," he said.
Building on recent gains
Bilateral ties have improved significantly since the current prime minister and head of the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina, took office for the second time in 2009.
Among other initiatives, steps have been taken to connect Bangladesh's Chittagong Port with the landlocked Indian northeast, forming a trade corridor likely to yield economic benefits for both countries. They have also teamed up to help solve the region's chronic energy woes.
In the security arena, the two countries are on the verge of signing an extradition treaty, which will facilitate the handover of wanted terrorists.
Hasina's government has pledged to hand over Anup Chetia, the separatist leader from Assam, and analysts say India expects any future Zia administration to follow through with that promise.