PM Hasina’s visit to India in Pankaj’s eye
India's former Deputy National Security Advisor Pankaj Saran has rated as "excellent'' Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent India visit and acknowledged her contribution to strengthening ties with India.
Ambassador Saran made this assessment while hosting a fortnightly show' Around the world with Ambassador Pankaj Saran' for Awaz The Voice, a news website here. The discussion was based on the theme 'India's Neighbourhood First Policy.'
Asked to sum up key takeaways from Sheikh Hasina's visit, Ambassador Saran said that the Bangladesh PM visited India after 2019 and the visit provided an excellent opportunity for both Prime Ministers to sit down and discuss many issues. He added that the personal equation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a very valuable asset for the relationship.
Saran said Bangladesh is one of the best success stories of India's Neighbourhood First Policy enunciated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014.
He said, "Since Hasina's election in 2008, there have been many breakthroughs and this comes out of her personal commitment. What Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has done for Bangladesh's development and for the relationship with India, is quite extraordinary and this comes out of her own commitment. She actually believes that a good relationship with India is actually in Bangladesh's interests. India has simply reciprocated and joined hands with Sheikh Hasina to do things that were previously not possible or were unthinkable. In this period, the rate of growth of the Bangladesh economy and development has been the fastest it has ever had since 1971. The point to be made here is that a good relationship with India is good for Bangladesh's economy.''
Saran added, " I'm happy to see that India has decided to invite Bangladesh for the G 20 summit. India is institutionalising a lot of initiatives it is taking with Bangladesh. In the past 15-20 years, our trade with each of our neighbours except Pakistan has grown significantly and the biggest change has come in the case of Bangladesh. Last year, we traded 18 billion dollars with Bangladesh.''
Replying to a question, the seasoned diplomat said, "We are institutionalizing a lot of initiatives that we are taking with Bangladesh. We want to make it sustainable, irreversible and ensure direct benefit to the common man on both sides. History has shown that we have had very difficult phases also with Bangladesh but let us focus on the present and do our best with honesty, transparency and taking into account mutual interest. That is the way ahead.''
Saran also gave the Bangladesh PM credit for successful implementation of some iconic projects like the Padma Bridge which is an example of political determination. In this visit, the outcome on sharing of the Kushiyara river, is a really good development. It is important for us to move forward on water management because Bangladesh is a riverine country. There are many initiatives- energy, road, rail, inland waterways, coastal shipping and the integration process is working well to the advantage of both sides.''
Elaborating upon India's Neighbourhood First Policy, the former envoy told Awaz The Voice, " We would like the neighbours to develop. We would like to build a partnership based on equality, trust and non -interference and ensure that we are all safe and secure. The Neighbourhood First policy has succeeded in protecting India's security interests. India's security is non-negotiable.''
Replying to a question, Saran clarified that India does not want to be a big brother. "That is not the objective of the Neighbourhood First policy. India only wants to be an honest and genuine partner in the region.''
While agreeing that many of the initiatives taken by SAARC failed to materialize, Saran held Pakistan accountable for its obduracy to allow normal SAARC institutions and initiatives to go forward. "In Pakistan's blinding hostility to India, it was willing to sacrifice the noble objectives of SAARC. The last SAARC summit was held in 2014 in Nepal which PM Modi attended.''
At the same time, he asserted, "India will not allow Pakistan to hold it back in the noble task of integrating the region and making it more prosperous and more secure,"
Asked if the Neighbourhood First Policy has overshadowed SAARC, Saran said, "In India, the view is not to wait for SAARC to move its agenda forward if other countries are willing to move much faster with us in their relationship. India's approach of creating the coalition of the willing is showing concrete results on the ground. Because of the success of the Neighbourhood First policy and the way it is being reciprocated, today no one is missing SAARC in India and the region.''
He said that the purpose of SAARC was to promote sub-continental integration among all the countries of South Asia. "Of course, we are members of SAARC and when conditions are right, we will go forward with it.''
The former envoy said that India's overtures to Pakistan were not properly understood. "When PM visited Lahore in 2015, he was making a big statement but the Pakistani establishment misunderstood that gesture. Unfortunately, we find after the Prime Minister's visit to Pakistan we saw Uri, Pathankot and Pulwama. Forces in Pakistan mounted terrorist attacks on Indian installations and that put the process back to square one. Then, the government decided to leave Pakistan alone.''
Saran's simple prescription to Pakistan is that the elite and the armed forces in Pakistan who make India policy need to come to terms on how they want to deal with India. "Pakistan has to change its strategic mindset. Pakistan has been the hotbed of global terrorism for three decades. Till Pakistan is walking on the path of terrorism and using Kashmir as a means to whip up anti Indian hysteria and then also saying they are ready for a dialogue. It does not work that way. "
He said that Narendra Modi's invitation to leaders of South Asian countries for his swearing in ceremony in May, 2014 was historic, bold and indicated a very powerful sentiment on the part of the elected government.
Saran said that India's Neighbourhood First policy has moved very fast. "We have a complex neighbourhood but India has achieved good results. India has tailor-made its approaches to each neighbour differently. "
Saran said that India should be bolder and more ambitious when we talk of integration of our financial markets and banking systems.
Saran drew attention to the way India reached out to its neighbours during the COVID 19 pandemic (January and April of 2021). "India granted or sold about 19 million vaccine doses to our neighbours and that really saved lives. India also provided hydroxychloroquine doses. India also sent doctors and held online training for healthcare practitioners. The Prime Minister also announced the creation of a SAARC COVID Emergency Fund and India put in 10 million dollars. Others also contributed but Pakistan did not."
The writer is a contributor