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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

Khaleda’s India surprise is welcome

Where the BNP needs to shore up confidence is with those who are concerned with the extent of its anti-Indianism in the past.

Former PM Khaleda Zia

he olive branch that Khaleda Zia offered New Delhi during her trip to India last week was superb statecraft and the clearest sign yet that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is refashioning itself into a force to be reckoned with. If opinion polls, local election results, and conventional wisdom are anything to go by, the ruling Awami League's (AL's) popularity has diminished steadily since it came to power in a landslide in December 2008. The one bright spot for the AL was that the BNP did not seem to be doing much of a good job reinventing itself as a party for the future, nor had there been much of a groundswell of popular support towards the Opposition. But, as we enter the final homestretch before the general election season, this dynamic may well be shifting, and Khaleda's savvy positioning with respect to India may well be the first salvo in a smart BNP ground-game aimed at retaking office in the coming election. The anti-India card did not work well for the BNP in the 2008 elections, and with her historic summit meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in early 2010, Sheikh Hasina staked her premiership on better relations with India delivering palpable and visible benefits to the country. It didn't really work out that way, and the public mood has soured on India, especially after Mamata Banerjee scuppered a deal on the sharing of the Teesta waters.

Faced with the apparent failure of the AL policy of reaching out to India together with growing public discontent with the policy, it might have made perfect political sense for the BNP to double-down and resurrect the anti-India card, and use it as the centre-piece of its electoral strategy. But the strategy the BNP has chosen to follow is not only a better one in terms of intelligent policy, it is also a far shrewder one in terms of the politics, and suggests that the BNP has learned its lesson in Opposition well and has put the past three years to good use. With the AL already tagged as too pro-Indian in the public mind, and with its India policy perceived a failure, the BNP has no need to beat that drum. Those who are concerned about India will vote for BNP anyway. Where the BNP needs to shore up confidence, both inside the country and out, is with those who are concerned with the extent of its anti-Indianism in the past. Khaleda's statements during and after her India trip have been aimed squarely at this constituency. While avoiding a direct admission of its past misdeeds, the BNP has persuasively suggested that the party's sheltering or sponsoring terrorists or insurgents, anti-Indian or otherwise, is a thing of the past. Similarly, Khaleda made it explicit that she understood that a good relationship with India is an indispensable component of any intelligent foreign policy for Bangladesh. The party has also come out strongly, for the first time, in favour of connectivity, albeit fibbing somewhat about its strong earlier opposition. So, all in all, Khaleda's India trip was a resounding success for the BNP.

The AL makes a good point that this sudden about-face on the part of the BNP may be less than credible and that the party's past record cannot be so easily dismissed. Promises and commitments made only in the run-up to an election have a way of being forgotten the minute the votes are counted.

However, there is reason to suspect that the BNP pivot may well be genuine. The fact is that the India-bashing of old is played out, and given current geo-political realities, as well as shifting sentiment inside the country, taking the anti-India card off the table may be the smart thing to do. If that is what has motivated the BNP, then it is a welcome development. The AL is right to caution us not to take the BNP olive branch at face value, and it remains to be seen how the BNP will establish its credibility on the issue. But if last week's trip does herald a sea-change in the BNP position towards India, it is good news, both for the country as well as for the BNP's political fortunes.

 
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