Vikram Doraiswami arrived in Dhaka with a view to winning back its attention. He has already succeeded.
Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Vikram Doraiswami has been turning heads in Bangladesh, ever since he arrived last September to take over the post vacated by Riva Ganguly, under whom it was the relationship between the two countries had started to drift. Doraiswami arrived with a clear focus on infusing more dynamism and energy into what has arguably grown into the most important bilateral partnership in the region over the course of the last 12 years.
At a time when the Chinese were increasingly perceived to be set on wooing Bangladesh away from under the noses of an Indian government too busy with its domestic agenda Doraiswami’s entire brief may just have been to salvage the relationship at any cost. Since arriving, quite literally from the day he set foot in Dhaka, he has gone about his mission with a combination of charm, wit and bags of energy.
Yet even he knows that envoys come and go. In order to make the relationship between Delhi and Dhaka sustainable in its present pathway, it needs to be put on an institutional footing. The way to achieve that between nations is through trade, through its people and institutions interacting and sharing their stories and experiences, and through identification of shared interest.
Doraiswami homed in on the trade aspect recently, calling it potentially a key driver of the Bangladesh-India friendship in future, with focus on value addition of products. He also identified the environment as a key issue of common interest between the two countries – specifically, trying to save the environment.
“We should look at trade and a whole new framework. I believe trade will be potentially a key driver of our friendship in future,” he said, adding that the two countries need to be futuristic about how to deal with the next generation of issues.
High Commissioner Doraiswami made the remarks while delivering a keynote speech at a symposium titled ‘Bangladesh-India Relations: Prognosis for the Future’ which premiered on Thursday night.
An array of experts from Bangladesh and India – former Ambassador Tariq A. Karim, Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore Prof C. Raja Mohan, Dhaka University Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya.
There was also Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) President Maj Gen (Retd) A. N. M. Muniruzzaman, CPD Executive Director Dr Fahmida Khatun, Brig. Gen.(Retd.) Shahedul Anam Khan and former Indian Foreign Secretary Krishnan Srinivasan – al were brought together for the online symposium to assess the state of relations between the two countries and identify the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the effort to take it forward.
Renowned scholar-diplomat and adviser on foreign affairs to the last caretaker government Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury chaired the event hosted by the Cosmos Foundation, philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group. Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan delivered the opening remarks at the event.
For future trade, High Commissioner Doraiswami laid emphasis on some areas in which Bangladesh could provide India a key base for value addition including in food production and RMG and textile.
The envoy said there is a need for the two countries to do much on the Sundarbans and better cooperation between the two countries. “I think the environment is an important area for us to look at.”
He also talked about closer integration of transportation systems, greater connectivity, power and energy sector cooperation including renewable energy; blue economy cooperation and people to people connectivity and health sector cooperation that he says can bring a win-win situation for the two countries.
Doraiswami said both sides will benefit from closer integration of the transportation system and in that Bangladesh will benefit more. He said Bangladesh’s economy is growing faster than the economy of surrounding Indian states and Bangladesh has the capacity to provide many of the services and goods that many of Indian states use. “There is an immediate benefit for Bangladesh.”
The envoy said connectivity needs to be seen as a regional and sub-regional issue not just a bilateral issue. He mentioned that Bangladesh is interested to have connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan through India, most recently to Myanmar through India. “It is a sign of how much the narrative has changed. It is a sustainable way to move forward if both sides see benefit in any initiative.”
Dr Iftekhar said Bangladesh-India contemporary relations, in many ways, are pretty much determined by factors that earlier drove the pre-partition, Eastern-Bengal relationship with its demographic religious composition with the rest of the subcontinent. He said the two countries are now interacting with the external actors as well like China and the United States, adding to the historical complexities of the relationship.
“The challenge for both Bangladesh and India is to transform the geographical compulsions into mutual benefits and for Bangladesh in particular, to evolve a pattern, in which it can live and conquer with but distinct from its powerful neighbours,” said Dr Iftekhar.
Prof Raja Mohan said it is very important for the current and the next generations to remember how challenging the circumstances were, how difficult it has been to overcome some of the persistent and bitter legacies of partition that have troubled the relationship across the subcontinent.
He said it is important to think big and the job must necessarily be done by the think-tanks because the politicians and the media are always going to be in a critical mode. “I think constructing possible positive power is the job that the academics and the think-tanks must need to do more.”
A challenging assignment
Ambassador Krishnan Srinivasan said Bangladesh-India friendship has been hostage to psychological and physical impediments and the vagaries of politics on both sides of the border. “Every regressive action on one side results in a reaction on the other side.”
He said the establishment of connectivity by land, river, sea and air and free movement of commerce and capital will lead the development in both countries without any detriment to sovereignty and independence.
Srinivasan said the stability and prosperity of Bangladesh are essential for Bangladesh, but also for India - and this is the hard reality.
He said in a globalised world, every nation has multiple choices of friends, and India should accept that Bangladesh must have outreach to Southeast and Northeast Asia. “In any asymmetrical relationship, it is a given that failures in delivery by the larger party will always loom larger than its accomplishments.”
That is why, he said, the High Commissioners in New Delhi and Dhaka hold the two most challenging diplomatic assignments in their countries.
Muniruzzaman said Bangladesh and India have been passing through the honeymoon period of bilateral relationship as it is now at its peak.
“But all relationships need to be nurtured and that’s a way we should follow. As we look at the future which is extremely difficult to predict, we’ll have to pave a way for a smooth relationship in the future. So, it’s necessary to analyse the current irritants in the relationship that can become obstacles as we move towards the future for bilateral relations,” he said.
He said the relationship has to be built with people of the two countries in a more holistic and comprehensive way.
Muniruzzaman said the perception of people is the basic foundation on which bilateral relationships are built and sustained. “This is something we’re faltering and this is something we need to address on an urgent basis because we need to have a more solid foundation of a sustainable relationship”.
He said Bangladesh and India will have to work more closely on climate change issues as the frontline states to the challenges of climate change, including sea-level rise.
“We need to work together on disaster management which will become a more critical issue as climate change progresses further. There're issues of great cooperation potential for ecological balance maintenance and biodiversity,” the former army official said.
Muniruzzaman said there has to be more cooperation in the areas of science, technology, data science and robotics by building cooperative mechanisms in these fields.
“We need to work more closely on maritime cooperation and the aspects of the blue economy. We need to build a better strategic communication platform and that is essential and that is something on which we have not devoted any time altogether. We need to work together on the aspects of social media to build a better understanding between the people of our two countries,” he observed.
As the biggest country in the region, he said India should play a more proactive role in building regional cooperation platforms and making more cooperative mechanisms in the SAARC platform.
“India and Bangladesh can work together on food and energy security and transnational security issues. We need to work together on energy cooperation, particularly because we're a grossly energy deficient region mainly for lack of cooperation. We have the resources but we don’t harness them. So, it is high time for energy cooperation, in particular building clean energy cooperation,” Muniruzzaman observed.
Stating that both countries are vulnerable to cyber-security threats, he thinks cyber-security cooperation is needed between the two nations to deal with the problem.
Can’t choose your neighbours
Tariq Karim said Bangladesh and India can never dream of having an adverse or a hostile relationship with each other due to their geographical positions.
“It’s unimaginable that the two neighbours were integrated geographically as we're by God and nature… we have to learn how to live with each other, and the sooner we can learn how to do that productively for the benefits of people on both sides, the better it is for both the two countries,” he said.
The veteran diplomat thinks Bangladesh’s phenomenal success, particularly in the last decade, has become possible as the country could manage to get its regional relations right after a long time.
Putting emphasis on spending more money on research for enhancing regional cooperation and connectivity, he said, “We need to set the foundations for local and regional development…we’re a connected subcontinent, but we decided to sever those connections ourselves some 75 years ago and now we are grappling with how to get recounted.”
“We’re now thinking of an energy grid, this is the dream I have been harbouring for 20 years, and we’re slowly seeing that actually happening with agreements being put in place.”
Tarique said the two neighbouring countries need to focus on managing the common resources together proactively. “We need to have coordinated mechanisms for doing all these.”
“How do we manage our commons like the water and shared forest we have? The Sundarbans today is a fraction of what it was 100 years ago and it was one of the largest most significant carbon sinks in the world.”
Enayetullah Khan said Bangladesh and India have diligently forged a warm and friendly relationship that has been described as a textbook example of a neighbourly relationship.
“Even so, it would not be incorrect to say that recent years have witnessed what has been described as a ‘golden age’ in the relationship. And Prime Minister Modi’s attendance as the most honoured chief guest during Bangladesh’s Golden Jubilee celebrations of independence just last month, served to underline that fact,” he said.
Prof Imtiaz Ahmed said the two-nation theory will not work and this had not worked back in 1971. “Two-nation theory is really bad, that we need to keep in mind.”
Talking about policies of singularity, he said it will not work if Bangladesh, India or any other country thinks that it will develop alone and will not allow others to develop.
Prof Imtiaz said time has come to focus on abundance. “We need to focus on two abundances – one is people and another is ocean.”
He hoped that this pandemic would create opportunities and laid emphasis on cooperation in the areas of science and technology. “Prognosis of the future should be credible so that we can make good use of it.”
Additional reporting by A.R. Jahangir
From India with vaccines
As hopes fade of the Serum Institute of India being able to keep its commitment vis-a-vis vaccine supplies for Bangladesh, Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka Vikram Doraiswami is keen to remind his hosts that there is another option of a Covid-19 vaccine available from his country.
The high commissioner said besides the Covishield vaccine from Serum, the alternative that they have consistently been offering to export is Covaxin, which they offered not only for trial here in Bangladesh at their own cost but also for co-production.
Covaxin is the brand name of India’s ‘indigenous vaccine’, so called for also being developed on Indian soil by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) - National Institute of Virology (NIV).
ICDDR, B and Bharat Biotech entered into an agreement in December 2020 for the Phase-III clinical trials of Covaxin in Bangladesh, but the actual trials are still awaiting approval. Covaxin has shown efficacy of over 80%, comparable to that of Covishield.
Yet the suave career IFS officer will find it difficult to overcome misgivings in Bangladesh regarding Covaxin, after the bad press it received in January, when it was approved for emergency use by India’s drug regulator even before the completion of Phase II of its clinical trial, a three-phase process.
Doraiswami reiterated that for Covaxin, there is also an offer to co-produce that remains on the table. He also said Dhaka can choose to be flexible, so the choice is not either/or. It can choose to order different amounts of both.
“Bangladesh can choose all the options offered to it. It can choose some. But this is Bangladesh’s sovereign decision, not an Indian decision,” he said, while addressing a symposium titled ‘Bangladesh-India Relations: Prognosis for the Future’ which premiered Thursday night on Facebook.
Bangladesh has so far received 7 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured under license by SII and sold under the brand name Covishield. It had signed a deal with local pharma giant Beximco Pharmaceuticals to supply 30 million doses over a period of 6 months, starting from January.
The supply of the rest of the vaccine doses as agreed remains suspended due to current high demand in India. Bangladesh also received 3.3 million doses of Covishield as a bilateral partnership gift. Overall, the 10.3 million doses is the largest amount sent from India to any country.
The Indian envoy said SII signed the agreement directly with the Health Ministry of Bangladesh through Beximco on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. “It is not a government of India-facilitated agreement.”
India’s tough second wave
The High Commissioner said they have done their best to provide vaccines to Bangladesh, to all its neighbours and also to other countries to which they have legally and commercially binding obligations including in the UK.
On availability of vaccines, the Indian envoy said there is a major crisis underway in India at the current moment.
“We are doing our best within that current situation to make available vaccines and to increase the production of vaccines so that we have the capacity to provide not only to our population who are now unable to get the first or second dose of vaccine but also provide it to whom SII has bilateral commercial commitment,” he said.
India has been trying to meet its internal demand as well as obligations made under contractual agreements by Indian companies to produce more of the vaccines being manufactured at the Serum Institute of India in Pune and by other prominent vaccines manufacturers.
Shoulder to shoulder
Amid the rapidly deteriorating Corona situation in India, the government of Bangladesh has offered to dispatch on emergency basis medicines and medical equipment for the people of India who are fighting the pandemic across the country.
These include approximately 10,000 vials of injectable anti-viral, oral anti-viral, 30,000 PPE kits, and several thousand zinc, calcium, vitamin C and other necessary tablets, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The government of Bangladesh expressed deep sorrow and condolences at the loss of lives in India due to the spread of the COVID pandemic.
Bangladesh said it stands in solidarity with close neighbour India at this critical moment and is ready to provide and mobilise support in every possible way to save lives. The thoughts and prayers of the people of Bangladesh are with the people of India for alleviating their sufferings, MoFA said.