The foreign policy of a country like India cannot be run on the basis of obsessions. India’s foreign policy makers are obsessed with Pakistan and the United States of America. This explains why a country like Bangladesh is accorded such a low priority by the prime minister and the relevant mandarins. It is difficult to believe that Manmohan Singh, who has been the prime minister for seven years, is now visiting Bangladesh for the first time. The previous prime ministerial visit to Bangladesh was in July 1999, when Atal Behari Vajpayee went to Dhaka. For 12 years, Bangladesh has been considered beyond the pale till suddenly Mr Singh woke up to its importance. The reigning assumption seems to be that if foreign policy looks after the pounds (read the big countries or the big issues), the pennies (read small countries and allegedly minor issues) will look after themselves. The assumption is as misplaced as the one that says global politics only revolves around the US axis. The self-evident truth is that Bangladesh is important to Indian foreign policy and for the role that India seeks to play in the region. This has been true since the birth of Bangladesh but even more true since the election victory of Sheikh Hasina Wajed in December 2008.
Bangladesh is the second biggest Muslim country in the world and this fact alone should make it important to India. It can be an ally, especially with Ms Wajed as prime minister, in the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. A strong Indo-Bangladesh alliance, based on mutual trust and respect, will give India leverage in its negotiations with Pakistan and China. Bangladesh may be a small country compared to some, but it can help India pursue larger goals and aspirations. Greater cooperation with Bangladesh will enable India to maintain better connectivity with the Northeast. Sheer self-interest, often seen as the cornerstone of foreign policy, should have forced India to accord greater priority to its eastern neighbour. Yet for 12 long years, no prime minister of India visited Bangladesh. The argument that such visits were not made because the regime of Khaleda Zia was perceived in India as a hostile one is somewhat specious since no effort was made to win her over. Mr Singh may have left his visit too late for his intentions to appear genuine and sincere. He is also severely handicapped by the fact that on the Dhaka stage he is directing Hamlet without Ophelia.