Switzerland or Afghanistan?
Bangladeshis tend to over-estimate how much influence they have in world affairs. Witness our then-Prime Minister’s spur-of-the-moment trip to Delhi and Islamabad in 1998. The backdrop of that visit was both countries going nuclear, in a testosterone-induced escalation from all that strutting at Wagah. To this day, no one can explain to me what she wanted to achieve.
Similarly, at pessimistic/opportunistic moments, Bangladeshis tend to underestimate their room for maneuvering in international affairs. Witness our impotence over Tipaimukh. Or our unwritten be-nice-to-Saudis policy (hint: it has to do with “labour”, and not the kind that gives you babies or Ed Miliband.)
The truth is somewhere in between. Bangladesh is certainly not master of the waves. But nor is it a flotsam completely at their mercy. We might just be those cool kids on surf boards. If he were still alive, Heath Ledger would play us in a movie.
Joking aside, I think we do have a long-term choice to make.
Consider that two of our neighbours are China and India – high growth countries with large populations. Over the next century these two countries will grow more powerful and their ambitions will grow with them. There will be opportunities for cooperation and for conflict.
In other words, we might just be seeing a new Great Game. Just with different players.
Syed Mujtaba Ali wrote of Afghanistan in the 1920s in Deshey Bideshey. Every other conversation in the book seems to hover on the politics at play. Among my vague recollections from having read it years back was one particular character who knows that neither Britain nor Russia is really Afghanistan’s selfless friend, and decide that the only way for Afghanistan to survive is to play one against the other. So clearly, they themselves were aware of standing in as proxies for the two imperial powers. It did not seem to help them much for the rest of the century.
So that’s one option.
The other, as the title gives away, is to be Switzerland to Europe’s powder keg in the past century. This should not be controversial to AL-ers since it was Mujib who is famous for this analogy. Basically, the emphasis is less on direct democracy and multiplicity of languages (though I’m in favour of both), and more on keeping our heads when all about are losing theirs. Essentially, we have to reorient our political and economic institutions to make ourselves indispensable to both China and India. Easier said than done, and I will leave others to work out the details of why this is feasible or not. By way of an example: if we did develop Chittagong and ensured that both India’s Northeast and China’s western provinces had rail access to it, that would be in line with such a doctrine. And make us some very good friends on the way.
So that’s the other option. I do not think it’s easy or even completely feasible given our resources. For one, it will require continuity despite change in governments. That does not happen at the moment. For another, it will require our parties to remain neutral in the face of funding potentially pouring in from these countries.
But most importantly, it will need us to become an honest broker in our dealings with these two powers, because disagreements are likely to be inevitable. Now, when we can not even find honest disinterested brokers in our own domestic affairs, how exactly are we to become that for others? So Afghanistan pre-1980 remains the easier option.
I never said the surfer does not get banged on his head with his own board.