Political unrest in a neighbouring country is always a concern for India. But it is never a good strategy to allow matters of the State to be influenced too much by the politics of the day. The current turmoil in Bangladesh is thus a test for New Delhi’s foreign policy imperatives in the region. New Delhi has a major stake in improving and expanding its ties with Dhaka. India’s new president, Pranab Mukherjee, underscored this by choosing Bangladesh for his first official visit abroad. The visit is clearly intended to add momentum to a new push in the bilateral ties. Over the past year or so, a number of high-profile Indian leaders, including Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, Salman Khurshid, the external affairs minister, and Sushil Kumar Shinde, the home minister, have visited Dhaka. Bangladesh’s topmost leaders too, including Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, Khaleda Zia, her predecessor, and Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the former president, have visited India during this period. It seemed that both countries were keen to scale up the level of engagement. Ms Zia’s visit to New Delhi last November suggested that both countries would like to put the bilateral ties above the vagaries of Bangladesh’s domestic politics.
Ms Zia’s refusal to meet Mr Mukherjee in Dhaka is thus an unfortunate break from the recent diplomatic success. New Delhi may justifiably be upset over this, but it has no option but to get on with engaging Dhaka more effectively. The fact that Mr Mukherjee went ahead with his visit to Dhaka despite the political unrest in the country had its own message. But New Delhi needs to be cautious about its responses to the political turmoil now prevailing in Bangladesh. India has a big stake in the peace and stability of Bangladesh. The continuing mass protests at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square and the political backlash against them are Bangladesh’s internal affairs. But extremist politics and terrorism in that country pose threats that India cannot afford to ignore. India’s involvement in Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971 is a historical fact that continues to influence relations between the two countries and, more importantly, perceptions about them among the people on both sides of the border. But a clear message should go out from New Delhi that its commitments are to some basic principles such as peace and democracy and not to chosen political parties or politicians in Bangladesh.