Dhaka: Bangladesh's main Opposition leader Khaleda Zia on Sunday abruptly cancelled her proposed meeting with President Pranab Mukherjee, casting a shadow on his first foreign visit. As per the itinerary of the President, the Chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was to meet Mukherjee at his hotel suite on Monday afternoon but the revised official programme given to the media on Sunday does not include the meeting.
BNP sources said the party conveyed to the Indian government about Zia's inability to meet Mukherjee a couple of days ago. Zia's Political Advisor Shamser Mobin Chowdhury is understood to have cited to Indian officials security reasons for her calling off the meeting with Mukherjee in view of a two-day general strike called by the BNP's ally the Jamaat-e-Islami to press for a halt to trial of fundamentalist leaders for war crimes during Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971.
The two-day strike called by Jamaat coincides with Mukherjee's visit as does another shutdown announced by the BNP on the last day of his visit on March 5. Interestingly, Zia had met Mukherjee in November 2012 when she was in Delhi on a nine-day visit. Zia's calling off the meeting with Mukherjee came after India had, during her visit to Delhi, made it clear that it was ready to do business with any party in power Bangladesh and there was no reason to conclude that India was close to any party in particular, meaning the Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, arch political rival of the BNP chief.
During her stay in Delhi in 2012, Zia had made all the right noises in an apparent bid to reach out to India by promising that her party, if voted back to power, would not allow Bangladesh territory to be used by insurgents and terrorists to target India. Although the BNP has traditionally held a stridently anti-India stand, Zia had, during her India visit, vowed to make a "new beginning" in ties with India.
In recent days, Zia has raised eyebrows in secular political quarters in Bangladesh by dubbing the police crackdown on rampaging Jamaat activists as a "genocide" and her party has called a countrywide strike to protest alleged atrocities against Jamaat.
Meanwhile, Chowdhury, also a former foreign secretary, said the BNP already informed Zia's decision in a letter to the Indian High Commissioner saying she could not see the Indian President as the schedule coincided with a general strike called by "a political party". He said the letter mentioned that the Opposition leader's security system was "inadequate" even during normal time while her movement during the shutdown appeared more risky.
Indo-Bangla ties witnessed ups and downs since Bangladesh's independence but it is said to have witnessed its lowest ebb during the BNP's 2001-2006 tenure in government.