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No News Is Good News

As the Awami League-led government in Bangladesh completes its first six months in office, domestic politics is calm on the surface. The current quiet could be due to the disarray among the opposition. But there may be dark clouds looming behind the horizon. One such issue is the construction of the Tipaimukh dam in Manipur. Sharing of water between India and Bangladesh and threats to Bangladesh's resources have together always been an emotive issue and the opposition has been quick to seize on Tipaimukh as an example of a decision by India that is inimical to Bangladesh's interests. That India has not revealed all the details about the dam and its likely impact makes this a potential tinder box.

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIA

No News Is Good News
disturbance. Each of the previous three democratically-elected governments since 1991 faced opposition in the street well before the first six months of their terms, Zafar Sobhan and even the AL, consigned to electoral

As the Awami League-led government in Bangladesh completes its first six months in office, domestic politics is calm on the surface. The current quiet could be due to the disarray among the opposition. But there may be dark clouds looming behind the horizon. One such issue is the construction of the Tipaimukh dam in Manipur. Sharing of water between India and Bangladesh and threats to Bangladesh’s resources have together always been an emotive issue and the opposition has been quick to seize on Tipaimukh as an example of a decision by India that is inimical to Bangladesh’s interests. That India has not revealed all the details about the dam and its likely impact makes this a potential tinder box.

Zafar Sobhan (zsobhan@hotmail.com) is with The Daily Star, Dhaka.

T
he Awami League (AL)-led government, which swept to power in a landslide in last December’s elections, has just finished its first six months in office, and the country, mercifully, seems to be going through something of a lull. There is not much to write about, but in a country that has seen in the recent past bomb blasts and terrorist attacks, assassinations and assassination attempts, the absence of news is itself worthy of remark.

It should be remembered that it was barely two years ago that a near-anarchic stand-off between the government and the opposition paved the way for a soft military takeover, and that hartals and violent unrest, to say nothing of floods and cyclones, have long been everyday

o ccurrences.

In fact, when one considers that it was barely a few months ago that the entire country teetered on the brink of civil war, when disgruntled border guards slaughtered their officers and took over their barracks in the middle of the capital Dhaka, leading to a 36-hour siege that left over 70, including 57 army officers, killed, the relative calm that envelops the country as I write this column is nothing short of a blessing.

But, as in the Sherlock Holmes short story, Silver Blaze, in which the salient clue is the dog that did not bark, perhaps the fact that the political scene is so tranquil is itself of enormous significance.

In the recent history of Bangladesh this is unprecedented. How long this blissful peace will continue is anyone’s guess, but Bangladeshis are hoping that it heralds a new era of quiet and calm and that we might finally be progressing beyond the passions which have dominated Bangladeshi politics since its inception.

More prosaically, the calm suggests continued disarray among the ranks of the opposition, who do not have the strength to mount any kind of street agitation or

july 18, 2009

oblivion in 2001 and suffering the brunt of coordinated attacks at the hands of the ruling alliance’s cadres, had sufficient strength to call a hartal and mount a street protest before the end of the year (the 2001 elections were in October).

Promising Indicators

Of course, it is probably too soon to make any prognostications, either economic, political or social, as to the meaning of the current calm, but there are other clues that Bangladesh may be well on the way to a period of relative peace and prosperity.

After all, incremental development is a virtuous cycle. Once enough things begin to go right, we reach a tipping point and then many other things fall into place. And there are hopeful signs that Bangladesh may well be approaching such a time.

One of the most promising indicators is that, even after the lifting of the state of emergency in December, there have been no hartals for the first six months of this current government’s tenure. One reason is, as I have suggested, the relative weakness of the opposition. But another factor is increasing lack of tolerance for these kinds of methods of expressing dissent and the emerging consensus that these issues should be deliberated in Parliament and not in the streets.

We may also have reached a tipping point in the battle against corruption. It is true that the interim government’s muchtouted anti-corruption drive has gone down in flames, and the majority of those arrested, and even convicted, pursuant to the effort, will ultimately escape facing justice as a result of procedural irregularities. Nevertheless, corruption has now been imprinted on the national consciousness as an issue, and the long-term impact of this sensitisation is that the Bangladeshi public’s tolerance for corruption has diminished significantly.

Against all odds, the Bangladeshi economy continues to do well. Economists

vol xliv no 29

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIA

forecast that growth will remain steady at around 5% again this year. The garment sector is still pulling in much-needed foreign exchange, and it has been joined as a significant income-generator by the leather and pharmaceutical industries. Remittances from overseas workers continue to break all records, on target for over $10 billion this year.

In other news, the telecom giant, Grameen Telecom’s initial public offering has been approved, and this flotation will give a huge fillip to the still nascent capital market. In another noteworthy event, a local private equity fund has just inked a multi-million dollar deal to invest funds from the International Finance Corporation, indicating that the time has arrived for foreign investment to think of making a comeback.

The government has been making efforts when it comes to power generation, although it inherited an impossible situation as a result of the unparalleled corruption in the sector during the tenure of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)led government of 2001-2006. In addition, the government has reopened the issue of coal and gas exploration and the possibility of export. In other words, it is not only the quiet on the political front; there are many other tell-tale glimmers of steady leadership and prudent and mature decision-making, that lead to the inference that things are well.

Dark Clouds: Tipaimukh

Nevertheless, it is especially at times such as these that it is worthwhile to examine what possible dark clouds could lie just beyond the horizon, and to ponder what could go wrong in the coming months and years. If the past is any guide at all, the political situation, if not the economic one, is destined to sour, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, the tension will overflow into the streets.

It is pretty clear that the opposition BNP has decided to stake its hopes for a political come-back on the tried and tested tactic of bashing India and suggesting that the AL is in India’s pocket. This was their rallying cry before the last election, but it fell on deaf ears then. So far, it has yet to gain much traction as a line of attack against the current government. However, it is possible that the opposition has finally stumbled upon a wedge issue that could cause headaches for the government and do something about the BNP’s long-flagging popularity.

There was great hope on both sides of the border that after the elections of December brought the AL to power, we might finally be at the point of moving the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and India onto a more cooperative and less confrontational footing. This hope received a shot in the arm with the resounding victory of the Congress in India’s recently-concluded national elections, as both the AL and the Congress are perceived to be more pro-cooperation than either the Bharatiya Janata Party in India or the BNP in Bangladesh.

There has already been a thaw in bilateral relations and serious and substantive discussions are underway on a number of fronts such as trade relations and cross-border investment. With Bangladesh acceding to the Asian Highway n etwork, there have been concrete steps taken to facilitate transit or transhipment rights for India through Bangladesh to the north-east that has long been a key Indian demand.

Thoughtful observers on both sides of the border have long understood that greater integration of the two economies would be mutually beneficial, and that it is only narrow vested interests whose agenda is served by an antagonistic relationship. Thus, the expected complaints against this apparent pro-India tilt of the AL government have been muted and found little traction as a political issue.

However, the construction of the Tipaimukh dam, some 500 metres downstream from the confluence of the Barak river in Manipur, has handed the opposition an almost tailor-made issue on which to campaign.

The sharing of the waters of the many rivers that run through both Bangladesh and India has long been a bone of contention in Bangladesh, eliciting the s ympathy of even those who would, in other contexts, be considered pro-Indian and not inclined to cast India in the role of regional hegemon unilaterally flexing its muscles at the expense of a weaker neighbour.

Even for pro-Indian voices in Bangladesh, the inequitable sharing of water from common rivers is something that it is difficult to defend. The environmental and consequent economic costs to n orthern Bangladesh of the Farraka B arrage is real and measurably severe, and has long been the most potent weapon in the arsenal of those who see India as a regional bully and advocate a confrontational relationship.

The Tipaimukh dam is being constructed without sufficient consultation with the Bangladeshi authorities, and with minimal efforts to reassure the Bangladeshi public that its interests will not be compromised, and with the actual details of the dam and the likely environmental impact shrouded in doubt. Very little actual information has been released either to the Bangladeshi authorities or public. It threatens to become the hot b utton issue that will derail this government’s impressive start, give the opposition the opening it needs to paint the AL government as Indian acolytes and thus mount an offensive.

If the BNP does manage to revive itself and its flagging fortunes, and if it is successful in returning Bangladeshi politics to the old paradigm of anti-Indianism being crucial to political success, make no mistake about it, it will be because of Tipaimukh.

The stakes are therefore quite high, and it is incumbent on the Indian government, if it does not wish to suffer a public relations catastrophe that will deal a severe setback to Indo-Bangla relations, to do a better job of bringing the Bangladeshi authorities on board and of reassuring the Bangladeshi public about Tipaimukh.

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