Hasina has some of the finest diplomats and public faces to handle the initial take-off of a South Asian peace process, if she were to push it, though much depends on how India and Pakistan respond, writes Subir Bhaumik for South Asia Monitor
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's 15-minute long videocon with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan may have upset India, especially its paranoid strategic-security establishment. But Indian diplomatic circles, though ill at ease with the growing influence of a pro-Pakistan adviser in the Hasina PMO, sees some opportunity in the Imran-Hasina dialogue.
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 created a very toxic environment. Very little of that got into the public domain but both then prime ministers Atal Bihari 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 unleasing of the 'dogs of war'. As this realisation sinks home across the borders, the peace constituency is getting a small fillip amid the 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 and nepotism in her rule.
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 Islamist lobby.
The question is whether she can take the initiative to get a South Asian peace process going! "Yes," says Bangladesh watcher Sukharanjan Dasgupta, author of "Midnight Massacre", an account of the 1975 coup that killed much of Hasina's family.
"Modi was keen to carry forward the India-Pakistan peace process to pick up the thread from the backroom Musharraf-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 any efforts to strike a deal with India," says Dasgupta.
Dhaka as South Asia's Camp David?
"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," said Dasgupta.
Those who follow India-Pakistan relations on either side or border realise 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."
Bangladesh watcher Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri, a veteran political scientist and vice-chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University, says "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," he said.
Once the talks start, probably in Dhaka, India and Pakistan can work out a settlement on Kashmir in a year by picking up the leads of the Musharraf-Manmohan backroom effort, and one can easily draft the likes of RAW's A S Dulat and ISI's Asad Durrani (both former chiefs of the respective intelligence agencies) who not only ironed out differences but even wrote a book together.
"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," says Basu Raychaudhury.
"Vajpayee's soul will rest in peace if the Pigeons of Peace take over from the Dogs of War."
Hasina has making of a regional leader
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.
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," said Dasgupta.
Hasina's effort to balance between India, Pakistan and China is seen as both a survival and image-boosting effort.
Balancing between these three helps her get over the stigma of being a pro-India politician and emerge as a strong independent regional leader in keeping with Bangladesh's economic growth and human development trajectory.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia analyst. The views expressed are personal and not necessarily shared by editors of South Asia Monitor. He can be contacted at email@example.com)