BY JAYANTA GHOSAL
Did the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, call up the Prime Minister of Bangladesh? Yes he did! So what’s with that?
Earlier, when Sheikh Hasina had visited Delhi, we paid her a visit at the Bangladesh High Commission in Delhi. On that day envoys from various countries came and congratulated her. Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner Syed Haider Shah told Sheikh Hasina that the Prime Minister had sent his best wishes. Even before coming to Delhi, Imran Khan spoke to her over the phone for about 15 minutes.
So what’s the big deal about this? This is general diplomacy.
An Indian officer called me; he was unwilling to accept the development. His question was, “Alright, did you know that Sheikh Hasina was invited by Imran Khan to Islamabad?” I asked the officer how was I supposed to know what they had possibly discussed? Neither Sheikh Hasina nor Imran Khan had told me what they had spoken about. But extending an invitation to one’s country is courtesy.
I understood that Indian diplomats, officers and political leaders were concerned about Bangladesh. I feel that the times are changing. A country can have a strategic relationship with another. Today India’s dispute with Pakistan is in extremes. In 1971, Bangladesh was formed after it fought its Liberation War against the Pakistan army. But that’s something from 1971. This is 2020 and everything has changed. India is Pakistan’s enemy but independent Bangladesh is democratic. Why should it carry this baggage from history? China, Afghanistan, Iran — all want to maintain good relations with Dhaka. Everyone understands the geo-strategic importance of this small South Asian country. It isn’t absurd for China-Pakistan-Russia to try to have good relations with Bangladesh.
For India to do this, it needs to have proactive diplomacy. For this reason, the Prime Minister is sending Vikram Doraiswami to Dhaka as the High Commissioner. Harsh Vardhan Shringla was quite active as the High Commissioner in Dhaka. After Shringla, the importance of the Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka increased. His dedication towards Bangladesh was unprecedented. I’ve seen him as being very active since he was Joint Secretary responsible for Bangladesh and Smita Pant was a suitable junior officer.
We would talk about Bangladesh at his ground floor office in South Block and you could see Shringla’s eyes light up whenever a new idea came up. He is down to earth. I have never seen him as snobbish, indulging in lofty diplomatese. This person from
Darjeeling has climbed up the ladder, going from Bangladesh to being Ambassador to the United States and is today Foreign Secretary. Due to Shringla, Dhaka’s importance as a diplomatic posting has grown. In spite of being Tamil, he can speak a little Bengali. It is because his wife’s mother is Bengali and she is comfortable speaking in Bengali.
Let’s discuss Vikram Doraiswami. He had earlier been India’s High Commissioner in Afghanistan. He belongs to the Foreign Service batch of 1992. He was in charge of International Organizations and various summits. Today India has a lot of expectations from Vikram, in the same way Dhaka does too.
This radiant young man of 45 years was the personal secretary of Dr Manmohan Singh. On Race Course Road, outside Manmohan Singh’s chamber, in the tiny room where he used to sit and do the work as his personal secretary, I’ve seen how he had gathered experience in diplomacy from various countries. In our country, from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv, even during the era of P.V. Narasimha Rao, there would be only one personal secretary, and the person appointed would be a young IAS officer.
After Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister, former IFS officer Brajesh Mishra became his principal secretary and National Security Advisor. He introduced the practice of appointing two personal secretaries to the Prime Minister. One, an IAS officer who would focus on the country’s internal affairs, and maintain the channels of contact between the Cabinet, Chief Ministers and governors and the Prime Minister. The other, an IFS Officer. He would be the Prime Minister’s liaison officer with foreign ministers and all other statesmen in the world. Although Shakti Sinha, an IAS officer, was with Vajpayee at the time, Ajay Bisaria of the Foreign Service became the other private secretary.
Manmohan Singh did not discontinue this practice after coming to power. Of the two private secretaries, one was Vikram. But Vikram, who studied history at Delhi University, was first a journalist — hence, in his DNA, there lies the espial quality of a journalist. After his training ended in 1994, he went to Hong Kong. He was the Third Secretary. During this time, he learnt the Chinese and the Mandarin language at the New Asia Yale-in-Asia language school of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 1996, he went to Beijing. He worked there for four years. Vikram became the Deputy Chief of Protocol in Delhi. Then, in New York, he became a Political Counselor in Indian Permanent High Commission to the United Nations. Later, in South Africa’s Johannesburg he became the Consul General. After coming to Delhi, Vikram was in charge of SAARC for several years. In 2012, he was in charge of managing the BRICS summit.
Vikram has achieved success wherever he has been. And today, when he is going to Dhaka, he is the favourite of Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla. Do you know why I am saying this? It’s because if there is direct access to people at the top, the diplomat can easily make several decisions. The bureaucratic red tape is like a noose in all countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally likes Vikram. And Vikram agrees with the philosophy of the team consisting of Modi, Jaishankar and Harsh Vardhan Shringla. Sheikh Hasina knows him as well.
Therefore, it will be easier to fulfill the demands and resolve the issues relating to Bangladesh. Not like a big bully but by establishing a relationship based on equity. That is what Vikram Doraiswami wants. On March 3, 2020, Shringla took part in a programme of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies in Dhaka. There he stated: It is my great pleasure that I could come to Bangladesh, because Bangladesh is like my own city. I have a long-term relation with Dhaka and Bangladesh.
That day Shringla gave an assurance that the Indian government was pressuring Myanmar to create a favourable environment for the return of Rohingyas to Myanmar. Shringla, quoting Nazrul, said: Let’s divide ecstasy and misery equally, because in the era of globalization, happiness and sorrow recognise no boundaries and they appear at every door in the same way.
It is against this backdrop that Vikram will be in Dhaka. May his journey to Dhaka be successful.
(Jayanta Ghosal is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal)