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Pranab to push bilateral agenda with Lanka, B’desh at SAARC meet

[TOI, Tuesday, 24 February 2009 11:48 No Comment]

The forthcoming SAARC ministerial in Colombo will give foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee a unique opportunity to push the bilateral agenda with two of India’s closest neighbours, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Pakistan and Mumbai may get dimmed a little, partly because Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi may not attend, and the investigation ball is in India’s court now, though India will make a determined pitch to Pakistan to work on terrorism.

Despite Tamil Nadu erupting into violence and suicides, the UPA government has stuck to its clear distinction between the LTTE and the civilian Tamils. Mukherjee announced on Friday that India was ready to evacuate civilians caught in the crossfire and being used as human shields by the LTTE.

Though the LTTE is slowly progressing towards its end, the Tamil issue remains — and India hopes to convince the Lankan government to take up the political devolution effort in a more comprehensive way.

After initial hiccups, India has developed a kind of grudging respect for Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. India’s achievement in this period has also been to turn the Lankan government more accepting of India’s interventions. India now conducts almost all its business through the government which has raised comfort levels hugely. India will spell out its determination to rebuild and rehabilitate the northern areas of the island country, after the military campaign is over.

On Bangladesh, India had put all its chips on the table when Mukherjee met his counterpart Dipu Moni in Dhaka last weekend. Bangladesh responded by promising to return Anup Chetia. India will not push this which will involve some formalities between the two home ministries. But this gesture has been received with a lot of pleasure in the government.

In Colombo, Mukherjee will get a sense from Moni about the possible outcome of the high-level task force on India, but will stress the Indian decision to be a facilitator for Bangladesh’s economic development. India sees this as a paradigm shift in its approach to Bangladesh, though realistically, all the constraints in the Bangladeshi side that prevented closer ties with India continue to exist. How the Awami government overcomes these obstacles and what India can do to help them along will determine the course of India’s future with Bangladesh, certainly, if India is to prevent Bangladesh from falling into the arms of a willing Beijing.

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