Sheikh Hasina

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s 15-minute long videocon with Pakistan prime minister may have upset many in India, surely its security-driven Deep State. That it came in the wake of sustained efforts by a strong Pakistani lobby entrenched in Bangladesh government led by an adviser to PM may have rattled Delhi was seen as doubly worrying.

Bangladesh , which for 20 months refused to accept the credentials of Syeda Saqlain, Pakistan’s appointed High Commission to Dhaka, on grounds that she was an intelligence officer rather than a diplomat , suddenly turned round and not only accepted the new incumbent’s credentials but also set him up for a one-to-one with Foreign Minister AKA Momen. The Imran-Hasina videocon followed.

But the Indian diplomatic establishment, though ill at ease with the growing influence of a pro-Pakistani adviser in the Hasina PMO, sees a clear opportunity in the Imran-Hasina dialogue. That Salman F Rahman, Hasina’s Trade and Investment Adviser, whose close proximity to Pakistan, had upset India has now emerged the direct beneficiary of two huge tie-ups between his company Beximco on the one hand and Indian Oil (LNG terminal) and Serum Institute of Pune (Covid Vaccines) is evidence that something big is afoot.

Hasina (her links to both India and Pakistan) and Rahman (by his rather links to Pakistan and his new-found links with India) could well be Delhi’s new outreach spearheads to Pakistan is no longer ruled out.

Much as that is an opportunity for Rahman to legitimitize through transparent business ventures his wealth acquired through questionable means ( made through serial bank defaults laundered out of the country and big money made through insider trading that led to 1996 and 2010 stock market crashes) , it also gives Hasina to pay a larger regional role , a lead actor in a South Asian peace process that could be endorsed by China (India-Pakistan peace is key to CPEC functioning) and US (avoid nuclear war) for their own sweet reasons.

In 1998, Hasina, a first-time PM at that time, did play a ‘very positive role’ in reopening India-Pakistan dialogue after the nuclear tests by both countries have created a very toxic environment. Very little of that got into public domain but both Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were full of praise for Hasina’s role at that time.

In the post-Covid scenario, where all nations of South Asia are faced with huge economic challenges, the last thing that one of the world’s most populous regions can expect is the ‘dogs of war’. As this realisation sinks home across the borders, the peace constituency is getting a small fillip amid hyper nationalism. Suddenly the big strong macho leaders threatening each other seem to dwarf in prestige before a soft melancholic Bengali housewife who turned round her father’s party from a tatterdemalion band into a winning political combination.

Hasina’s successful battling the Covid, her tackling of floods, her huge economic achievements in Bangladesh’s “Golden Decade” (2010-20) has dwarfed her poor record in holding fair elections and fighting corruption — specially her decision to promote a known scamster like Salman F Rahman , whose bank defaults ($800 million) and moneylaundering (50000 crores BDT, according to Bangladesh Bank FIU report)  and his role in 1996 and 2010 stock market scam, as her private investment adviser, has dented her image.

But if a presidential election were to be held , she will win hands down — the problem is her party where leaders of talent and integrity and those of the Liberation War generation have been neutralised by the emerging mercantile business lobby and ‘not-so-soft Islam’ lobby. But when counts her obvious achievements, he stands taller than both Narendra Modi and Imran Khan.

The question is whether she can take the initiative to get a South Asian Peace Process going!  The answer is yes, if information gleaned from Hasina’s inside circles is to be believed. Hasina would only need both Modi and Imran to not only to ask ‘Bahanji’ to start the process but both need to back it up and invest in it rather in military hardware the US and European powers love selling to both arch-rivals.

Modi was keen to carry forward the India-Pakistan peace process to pick up the thread from the backroom Modi-Manmohan negotiations that had nearly unlocked a formula to settle the Kashmir problem. But his brilliant personal gestures were undone by ISI-sponsored terror attacks which sabotaged Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to strike a deal with India.

Now that Bangladesh has restored normal relations with Pakistan, while India has not, Delhi may not be averse to Hasina taking the lead to get Modi and Imran talk to each other in Dhaka like the US got Israel and Egypt talk to each other at Camp David. Dhaka could be South Asia’s Camp David.

Those who follow India-Pakistan relations on either side or border realize there is a military stalemate and also a mutual assured destruction (MAD) syndrome not merely in the nuclear sphere but also when it came to sponsored insurgencies. “If Pakistan jacks up Kashmir, we can destabilise Balochistan,” says former Indian intelligence Bureau (IB) officer Benu Ghosh. “We can hit as many pressure points of theirs as they can hit ours.”

Ghosh says the sooner this realisation sinks in, the Deep State on both sides would back a peace process which diplomats will be keen to take forward. “They know as diplomats that there cannot be a solution without talking.”

Many Bangladesh watchers say “Hasina is the right person to kick start the South Asian peace process.” Her motherly-sisterly gait (she prefers ‘Apa’ or elder sister to Madam) and her deep longing for peace (as she perpetually mourns the loss of almost her whole family) makes her the perfect peace symbol who could bring ‘brothers’ Modi and Imran to the table with a rakhi in one hand and a cap in the other .

Once the talks start , probably in Dhaka, India and Kashmir can work out a settlement in a year by picking up the leads of the Mush-Manmohan backroom effort and one can easily draft the likes of RAW’s A S Dulat and ISI’s Asad Durrani who not only ironed out differences but even wrote a book together.  ‘Vajpayee’s soul will rest in peace if the Pigeons of Peace take over from the Dogs of War.”

If the progress is fast, the ideal venue to sign an India-Pakistan Kashmir settlement will be the same ground in Dhaka, perhaps the same day when Pakistani general Niazi surrendered to Arora fifty years ago.

The pain of war and genocide can end and give birth to a new dawn in conflict-torn South Asia fifty years after the last India-Pakistan war gave birth to Bangladesh. The process of undoing the Partition can begin under a visionary leadership.

Hasina has some of the finest diplomats and public faces to handle the initial take-off of the South Asian peace process if she were to push it, though much depends on how India and Pakistan responds.

In Farooq Sobhan and C S Shafi Sami, she has two former foreign secretaries who have served in both Delhi and Islamabad with distinction. In her foreign policy advisor, Gowher Rizvi, a highly respected International Relations professor of Oxford and Harvard, she has a man who can conceptualise the whole process. Symbols are abundant to back the substantive peace process.

How about Awami League MP and Bangladesh’s most successful captain Mashrafe Mortaza reaching out to get Virat Kohli and Sarfraz Ahmed to play a friendly between Modi Xi and Imran Xi match in Dhaka to symbolically the whole process !  And then one between veterans like Gavaskar and Zaheer Abbas (what about Imran himself, he may spin bowling to send a message, not his usual faster stuff).

Hasina can also kickstart a similar peace process between India and China and then leave the two Asian giants locked in negotiations rather than on the snowy battlefields of Ladakh. War in the region will be a double disaster after Covid and if someone like Hasina assumes the role of a peacemaker housing a South Asia Peace Mission in Dhaka, it will just what the SAARC region needed. Smaller countries would look up the success of the mission.

In her own nephew Radwan Mujib Siddique and his team at the Center for Research and Innovation and few other public faces like former artist-lawyer and minister Taranna Halim, Hasina has the visionary brigade who can make all the difference.

The Indian and Pakistani political establishments feeding on war hype lack the peace politicians that Bangladesh has, but both the Modi and Imran establishments can co-opt some from the Opposition spectrum ( Shashi Tharoor and Mohua Moitra in India and Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Sharif in Pakistan) to lend substance to the process.

Didn’t Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi send Atal Behari Vajpayee at the head of national delegations to UN! Something that surprised Nawaz Sharif. Now it is South Asia’s turn to surprise the world by spring a peace googly on a world fed with the bouncers of war from Djibouti to the South China Sea — and Hasina rather than her more famous brothers holds the key to it.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: