The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Train to Dhaka, after 15-year wait

Dhaka, Feb. 19: What Dhaka’s political parties — Khaleda Zia’s BNP and Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League — could not do for the last 15 years, the army-backed caretaker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed delivered to the people of both India and Bangladesh today.

Right on top of the good news list is the train from Sealdah in Calcutta to Joydebpur, just outside Dhaka, that has been deeply mired in political mistrust, suspicion and bureaucratic indifference for 15 years.

At a meeting today between external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was in Dhaka for a few hours to hand over an invite for the Saarc summit, and the Bangladeshi side, led by chief adviser Fakhruddin and army chief Lt Gen. Moyeen U. Ahmed, the matter was quickly resolved.

Mukherjee also met both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina to understand their views on the current political situation.

The foreign minister refused to support the army-backed government outright in answer to a question from a Bangladeshi journalist, only saying that this was an “internal matter of Bangladesh” and that India hoped that Dhaka would take the first opportunity to have a free, fair and credible election.

However, it seemed as if the pragmatic school in New Delhi, in favour of constructively engaging with the new government, had won the first round today.

Mukherjee declared in his few minutes with the Bangladeshi media that both sides agreed to take steps towards an “irreversible, higher trajectory’’ in ties.

India would import duty-free two million pieces of Bangladeshi garments, build a new bridge over the river Padma at Rangachherra, and seek the full implementation of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta).

The army chief and Fakhruddin also told Mukherjee that both sides would jointly combat terrorism, a key success for the Indian side.

A meeting between army chief Moyeen and the Indian high commissioner in Dhaka, Pinak Chakraborty, took place only yesterday. This was the first meeting since Chakraborty took charge six weeks ago.

So this morning, when Mukherjee met the army chief and Fakhruddin, in a sense, the stage was set. Indian officials have been insisting that they would like to close the door on past mistrust, and leaders in Dhaka, off the record, have emphasised that they would like to turn a new chapter on the relationship.

The new Dhaka leadership is also believed to have sent the message that they do not want to capture power, unlike in Thailand or in the Philippines in the past. They have been publicly saying in the Bangladeshi media and to all diplomats here that they are responding to a “very unique situation” in cleaning up the country, and that they will get out once the national interest is served.

Until this morning, New Delhi had been circumspect about dealing with the new Dhaka, precisely because it was an army-backed dispensation. Moreover, if Delhi was seen to be supporting this government, it did not want its old friends in the Awami League to feel it had deserted them.

Today’s visit, ostensibly to issue the invite for Saarc, has moved one step forward in supporting the new caretaker government without being seen to be openly breaking bread with them.

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