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Since 1st March, 1999
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Khaleda offers hand of friendship

New Delhi, May 22: Begum Khaleda Zia’s trusted aide, Bangladesh finance minister Saifur Rahman, has delivered an unambiguous message to Delhi: “We are not anti-India and we’re no less a friend of India than the Awami League.”

The visiting minister made it clear that Bangladesh wanted a prosperous India and hoped the Indian economy would continue to do well. “We would rather be the neighbour of a rich country than a poor nation — the prosperity of Bangladesh also depends on how well our neighbour does,” he said.

Rahman is one of the senior-most ministers in Zia’s Cabinet and the number two in the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party. During the last three days he has met top Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to smoothen ties which have been under a cloud of late.

“There is a perception in India that the Awami League is its only friend in Bangladesh. This is not true. The BNP is not anti-India. We are no less a friend of India,” Rahman said last night.

Rahman is here on an invitation from his counterpart, finance minister Jaswant Singh. But he took the opportunity to meet other important ministers as well. Rahman met Vajpayee this morning and later spent time with foreign minister Yashwant Sinha. He met commerce minister Arun Jaitley yesterday.

Rahman denied the presence of Northeast rebels and al Qaida operatives in Bangladesh. “I am a politician and keep moving around in my country. So far I have not come across any outsiders hiding in our country,” he said.

Rahman said the neighbours should be able to resolve any problem that crops up at the political level.

“We should have a mature relationship in which such problems can be sorted out over a telephone call between senior leaders of the two countries,” he said.

But this proposal did not figure in his talks with Indian leaders. “There is no specific agenda for my talks. We discussed the big picture — something that will help us understand each other better and create an atmosphere for closer co-operation,” Rahman said.

The talks predictably centred around the huge trade gap between the neighbours. The trade gap is over $1.2 billion in India's favour. Dhaka wants Delhi to help narrow the gap by removing existing tariff and non-tariff barriers and giving Bangladeshi goods freer access to the Indian market.

“We know that with India’s huge economy and market, the trade gap will always be in its favour. But some urgent steps should be taken to improve Bangladeshi exports,” the finance minister said. “One sure way of doing this is by selling Bangladeshi gas to India.”

The BNP government is not averse to the idea, but domestic political compulsions have forced it not to take any decision as yet.

“The moment we take a decision to sell our gas to India, Opposition parties led by the Awami League will create a big hue and cry. In a democracy you cannot totally ignore the views of the Opposition,” Rahman said. But he admitted that the government will soon have to decide on what to do.

Though Rahman has not spelt it out, Bangladeshi officials said Dhaka hopes to be given ready access to the Indian market. This would create the impetus in Bangladesh towards building stronger economic ties with India.

“There is a feeling in Bangladesh that though we have opened our market to Indian goods, Delhi has not reciprocated the gesture. Despite assurances, too many roadblocks exist in improving Bangladeshi exports to India,” Rahman said.

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