The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Delhi denies favourites in Dhaka

Dhaka, Aug. 25: Foreign minister Yashwant Sinha did what a lot of Bangladeshis hoped he would do: send out a clear signal that India does not have any favourites in the country and will deal with whoever comes to power in Dhaka.

“India does not have a preferred political party in Bangladesh, it only has a preferred country,” Sinha said, clarifying Delhi’s stand to a group of leading Bangladeshi intellectuals this morning.

Historically, India is perceived to be closer to the Awami League. The links go as far back as Bangladesh’s war of liberation from Pakistan when Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman — the Awami League founder — laid the foundation of Bangladesh in close cooperation with India.

As a result, supporters of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party view Delhi with suspicion and are always on the lookout for issues that would strengthen their anti-India plank.

But Sinha seems to have cleared the air somewhat on Delhi’s policy towards Dhaka by this visit and frank discussions with BNP leader and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and other party leaders.

During his talks, the foreign minister clarified that “close economic cooperation was the bedrock of the bilateral relations between the countries” and announced that the crucial meeting of the joint working group on customs facilitation will take place in October to sort out problems on curbing smuggling across the border. He said the group would also discuss the opening up of rail and road links for speedy movement of goods between the countries.

But Sinha made it clear that India was not trying to force anything out of Bangladesh and though attempts will be made to help reduce the trade gap, he reminded his hosts that they should keep in mind the size of India’s economy.

On export of natural gas from Bangladesh, he said Delhi would be interested only if Dhaka shows the willingness to sell it. He argued that though India’s growing economy needed energy, Delhi would look elsewhere to meet its requirement if Bangladesh is reluctant to sell it to its neighbour.

During the hour-long meeting with the Prime Minister, Sinha conveyed the message that Delhi looked forward to working with Khaleda closely on bilateral and regional issues of importance. Sinha’s interactions were largely limited to his counterpart Morshed Khan, whom he met yesterday, but he also met Khaleda and several senior BNP leaders over the last two days. He interacted with editors of leading local dailies and magazines this afternoon.

To ensure continuity in top-level interaction between the neighbours, Sinha renewed Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s invitation to Khaleda to visit India. She accepted the invitation, extending one to Vajpayee in return.

Sinha also pulled off the perfect balancing act by meeting Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina this evening. The two leaders discussed the political developments in Bangladesh and the region and also spoke about areas that would strengthen ties.

Before leaving, Sinha said: “I have in all my talks, reaffirmed that our government and our people attach the highest importance to friendly and cooperative relations with this country…. I am confident that the efforts both sides intend to put in as a follow-up of my discussions here will facilitate fuller realisation of the vast potential for mutually beneficial cooperation.”

Sinha described his visit to Bangladesh as a “very satisfying and a very pleasant experience”. He said he would be back soon for the Joint Economic Commission meeting, the date of which will be announced in the next few days. “We have agreed to reactivate existing bilateral mechanisms and to take practical steps for imparting some fresh momentum to our cooperation in diverse fields.”

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