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Strategic convergence sans robust economic engagement unsustainable

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the personal attention he has paid to foreign policy, lifted bilateral engagement to an entirely different level within a year of assuming office. There was international relief when he released the pause button that the engagement with the global community had been put into and injected the much-needed vigour that had somehow dissipated during UPA-II.

narendra-modi_505_051214102741However, the prime minister needs to urgently recognize that in a globalizing world, genuine engagement is measured principally in economic terms. India, in other words, needs to be perceived as being good for international business, especially at a time of global economic slowdown and fears of recession. If this were to happen, it would be Modi’s greatest foreign policy achievement. In the eyes of the international community, India would have finally and truly arrived.

Perhaps this is best understood in the context of India-Australia relations. For various historical reasons, starting from India’s advocacy of non-alignment, its perceived alignment with the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, its nuclear tests followed by the spate of attacks on Indian students, bilateral relations had been static and even, at times, antagonistic.

In recent years, especially after the 2009 incidents on Indian students, efforts to seek a closer engagement were largely one-sided with Canberra reaching out to an aloof Delhi. Modi’s visit to Australia last year genuinely got the people to believe that the moribund relationship was finally set to dramatically change for the better. Words like “strategic partnership” entered the lexicon and the joint statement issued by the two prime ministers was positive and exciting.

Some identified areas of cooperation, such as in the fields of defence, security and transnational crime were entirely government-led and government-administered. People would read and hear about such cooperation. They did not, however, directly participate either in the decision making process or its execution. Nevertheless, such cooperation sends out a powerful political signal that the heads of government are now committed to cutting across a gamut of sectors because they see a strategic convergence.

Where people get directly involved is with regard to people-to-people contact and more significantly, in trade and commerce. In neither of these, despite a prime ministerial endorsement, do we find any significant shift in mindsets, especially from the Indian side. Unless Modi personally intervenes, the spring of heightened hope will become the winter of lost opportunity.

Let me explain. At the end of this year, India was to hold, in Australia, as announced by Modi, the Make in India and Festival of Indian Culture. Six months into the year, the coordinating agency from the Indian side is yet to be decided upon, a calendar of events is yet to be drawn up and venues are yet to be booked. In countries like Australia, where world-class venues, such as the Sydney Opera House, are decided at least a year in advance, this is clearly unprofessional. When the image Modi is trying to project is that of a ‘will-do’ India – young, hungry, professional and competent – all we have succeeded is to demonstrate that we are none of these.

Consider again the strong message India could have sent with Modi’s flagship Make in India project, if we were to showcase examples of joint collaboration with Australian industry and other international partners in actually manufacturing in India. However, this requires planning and preparation.

Consider also how a major fillip could have been given to his related Skilling India flagship project. Australia has some exceptional vocational training institutes that could largely enhance skills in India. This could have been used as an ideal platform to begin a dialogue that engages both the Australian and the Indian public. If we get a buy-in to the Skilling India idea from the public, significant participation and thus, endorsement, could have followed.

Move now to the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement [CECA] or the India-Australia FTA that is currently under negotiation. This truly would be an area of significant impact, in tangible terms, on India-Australia relations.

Less than a week ago, Australia and China entered into a historic FTA. Australia-China trade is already at $150 billion, whereas India-Australia trade is barely in double digits. Ch-AFTA, as it is referred to, is expected to unlock significant opportunities for both sides and further strengthen economic cooperation. It is anticipated that after the agreement takes effect, 85 percent of products from Australia would enter the Chinese market tariff-free.

Tourism is also expected to be a significant gainer through the FTA, with Australian service providers receiving guarantees that they can construct, renovate and operate wholly-Australian hotels and restaurants in China. This guaranteed access is also extended to travel agencies and tour operators and is expected to boost Australian tourism into China.

The India-Australia FTA will be bench-marked by the Australian business community vis-à-vis the FTA with Beijing. If we fall grossly short, this would infect the way in which we are perceived globally.

Our big handicap is that we continue to mollycoddle our industry through high tariffs to prevent market entry. Stiff opposition from the business community prevents us from flattening the playing field. It is time for the next generation of economic reforms that opens up the market and dismantles archaic legislation. Unless this happens, the Australia-India FTA would not realize its potential.

The manner in which India economically engages with the global community will determine whether the efforts the prime minister has made in the past one year on the foreign policy front would yield dividends. Strategic convergence without robust economic engagement is not sustainable. (IANS)

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Bangladesh PM Gets Global Support, Will Withstand Calls To Investigate Allegations

She dismissed questions about the fairness of the vote and said it was a “very peaceful election.”

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Bangladesh, media
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina interacts with journalists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 31, 2018. VOA

Congratulatory messages are flowing to Bangladesh Prime Minister-elect Sheikh Hasina, ensuring she will withstand calls to investigate allegations of widespread serious irregularities in Sunday’s election that was dominated by her coalition.

Hasina is set to form her third consecutive government and fourth overall, and on Thursday figurehead President M. Abdul Hamid invited her to form a Cabinet. The new members of Parliament took their oaths on Thursday, though seven opposition members boycotted the ceremony. The new Cabinet ministers are to take their oaths on Monday.

International reaction to the allegations of irregularities was not clear initially, but the scenario quickly settled after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed the way and China followed, congratulating Hasina for the massive victory, in which her Awami League party-led alliance won 288 seats in the 300-seat Parliament. The opposition-led alliance had only seven seats.

Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bhutan and Pakistan congratulated Hasina, while the United States and the European Union said they wanted to continue to cooperate with the government.

Bagladesh, election
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gestures after casting her vote in the morning during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 30, 2018. VOA

After coming to power in 2008, Hasina cautiously began building strategic partnerships with India, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. She repeated that when she returned to power in 2014.

Bangladesh joined a 34-nation Islamic military coalition under the leadership of Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism and is building its first nuclear power plant with Russia and India. Hasina bought two submarines from China and invited Japan to invest in infrastructure development, especially in power plants.

Bangladesh also became a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is a potential rival to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The European Union is a big export market, especially for Bangladesh garment products. Bangladesh traditionally buys its regular military weapons from China.

The country earns about $30 billion a year from exports of its cheap garment products, mainly to the United States and European Union, and is the world’s second-largest garment producer after China.

China is Bangladesh’s largest import source, while India is the second largest.

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An opposition BNP activist is being arrested by policemen in Dhaka. In 2018, thousands of opposition leaders and activists were arrested in Bangladesh on allegedly trumped up cases of political violence. VOA

“So we import from them and then we export to Western markets,” M. Humayun Kabir, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Washington and an analyst in international affairs, said in an interview.

Bangladesh has other ties to the West beyond trade. “Value-wise we believe in democracy. So, we are also value-wise connected to them,” Kabir said.

European nations and the U.S. are also home to a large Bangladeshi diaspora. “These are people living in those countries becoming or contributing to those societies. So, this … is how we are connected to the Western countries,” he said.

In a statement issued after Sunday’s election, the U.S. expressed concern about “credible reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence” but said it wanted continue to work with Bangladesh.

“The United States remains deeply invested in the future of Bangladesh and its democratic development,” it said. “Bangladesh’s impressive record of economic development and respect for democracy and human rights are mutually reinforcing, and we look forward to continue working with the ruling government and opposition toward advancing these interrelated goals.”

Bangladesh, election
An opposition BNP activist is being arrested by policemen in Dhaka. In 2018, thousands of opposition leaders and activists were arrested in Bangladesh on allegedly trumped up cases of political violence. VOA

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman congratulated Hasina for winning the election.

Analyst Kabir said during her 10 years leading Bangladesh, Hasina has built a successful relationship with influential and strategically crucial countries and has upgraded her image by hosting Rohingya Muslim refugees who were driven violently from neighboring Myanmar.

“Bangladesh is a good story in terms of development and progress,” Kabir said. And her solid election victory shows that Bangladesh’s economic development has the political support of voters, he said.

“So that story is now resonating well on the international community and that’s why we are seeing (so many countries) are congratulating the prime minister for the outstanding performance in the election,” he said.

Kabir said the international community wants to see Bangladesh as a stable nation. “We need to be more competitive for example, we need to do reforms in our labor sector for example, we need to also develop our infrastructure for example, we need to update our regulatory framework for example, because international investors always look at those issues, so now they’re looking at Bangladesh from a positive frame,” he said.

bangladesh, election
Salahuddin Ahmed, a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) candidate for general election, is seen bleeding as he was stabbed on a election day in Dhaka, Dec. 30, 2018. VOA

But Kabir said authorities should address the concerns of irregularities in the election.

More than a dozen people were killed in election-related violence Sunday, and the election campaign was dogged by allegations of the arrests and jailing of thousands of Hasina’s opponents. The most prominent of those jailed is Hasina’s archrival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who was deemed ineligible to run for office because of a corruption case her supporters say was politically motivated.

The Election Commission and other departments were accused of overlooking complaints of irregularities. Ahead of the election, a new digital security law was enacted that raised concern it would curb speech and media freedoms.

On Friday, Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a briefing in Geneva that they were concerned about violence and alleged human rights violations in Bangladesh before, during and after the elections.

“There are credible reports of fatalities and numerous injuries on polling day alone. There are worrying indications that reprisals have continued to take place, notably against the political opposition, including physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases. Reports suggest that violent attacks and intimidation, including against minorities, have been disproportionately carried out by ruling party activists, at times with complicity or involvement of law enforcement officers,” Shamdasani said.

Bangladesh, election
Women stand in a line at a voting center to cast their ballot during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 30, 2018. VOA

New York-based group Human Rights Watch urged an independent investigation into the alleged irregularities. The U.S., the EU and the U.N. all expressed their concerns.

“International donors, the United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of voters, not those in power,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.

In Zia’s absence, opposition parties formed a coalition led by Kamal Hossain, a former member of Hasina’s Awami League who was foreign minister under Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader.

Hossain’s small party, Gono Forum, does not have much popular support. Hasina and Zia, on the other hand, have much larger support bases and attract hundreds of thousands of supporters to their rallies.

Also Read: Violence And Intimidation Directed Towards Rohingyas In Bangladeshian Camps

A day after the election during a briefing with foreign journalists and election observers, Hasina came down heavily on the opposition. She refused a suggestion that she offer her political foes an olive branch.

“The opposition you see, who are they? The main party, BNP, it was established by a military dictator (Zia’s husband, Ziaur Rahman) who introduced martial law in this country. There were no constitutional rights for the people,” Hasina said.

She dismissed questions about the fairness of the vote and said it was a “very peaceful election.” (VOA)