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Bangla talks

New Delhi, March 5: India has invited Bangladeshi finance minister Saifur Rahman for talks in Delhi later this month in a clear attempt to bypass the foreign ministry and engage directly with the political leadership in Dhaka.

Rahman, who arrives here on March 17 for a two-day visit, is considered the Number Two in the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party. His meetings will be followed by commerce secretary-level talks between the two sides. India might refuse to budge on security-related issues, but Delhi is signalling that it is not averse to accommodating some of Dhaka’s long-pending economic demands.

Delhi’s move to engage with Rahman could be attributed to the fact that its experience with foreign minister Morshed Khan has not been encouraging. During his recent visit to Delhi, Morshed had given the impression that he had more of a “self-preservation” agenda than an intention to look into India’s “genuine” security concerns.

Delhi described Morshed’s hardline stance on India’s apprehensions — the presence of numerous illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the country and the growing activities of the ISI and Northeast militants on its neighbour’s soil — as an attempt to play to his domestic audience to boost his weak position in the Dhaka ministry.

Though disappointed with Morshed’s response to its concerns, India decided not to brand Bangladesh a “hostile neighbour”. Instead, it is trying to draw a distinction between the foreign minister and the Bangladesh government. South Block believes there is still much scope for engaging with Dhaka and, thus, Rahman has been invited for talks.

Rahman will have his main interaction with his Indian counterpart, Jaswant Singh, and will probably meet Yashwant Sinha.

The two sides are still trying to work out whether he could also meet the Prime Minister and his deputy.

India’s tough-talking with Morshed appears to have had a salutary effect. The recent exchange of fire between the Border Security Force and smugglers from Bangladesh in Malda did not flare up. To show that the two sides are keen on making the existing arrangements work, the BSF and the Bangladesh Rifles met several times to defuse the tension along the border, something they were not willing to do during the earlier standoff over pushing in of migrants.

The trade deficit between the two countries and access for Bangladesh to the Indian market will top Rahman’s agenda. The trade gap is nearly $900 million and is tilted heavily in India’s favour. Moreover, Bangladesh has been asking for removal of tariff barriers on over 100 items.

Bangladesh commerce secretary Sohail Chaudhury and his Indian counterpart, Deepak Chatterjee, will meet on March 20 to sort out some of the outstanding issues that could help strengthen bilateral trade ties.

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