Khaleda Zia softens stand on Bangladesh gas exports

Vol 5, PW 17 (10 Oct 01) People & Policy

Strident anti-India rhetoric might be good tactics to win votes for political parties in Bangladesh, but it's not good economics.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party candidly admits as much after it was swept to power in general elections on 1st October. Begum Khaleda Zia's BNP won 202 seats in the 300-seat parliament, trouncing Sheikh Hasina Wajed's former ruling Awami League.

Her poll ally, the Muslim fundamentalist, anti-India, Jamait-e-Islami party won 16 seats. Good reason for worry among foreign companies, waiting on the sidelines to export Bangladeshi natural gas to energy-starved India.

Consider the campaign slogans of both parties: "No export of gas with closed eyes," said the BNP, whose manifesto promised to oppose "tooth and nail" any "hasty decision by any other government." Jamait's battle cry: "No gas to India. We will never be India's colony." Even the Awami League - traditionally pro-India - was forced to join the chorus.

But post-election, the BNP is singing a different, more pleasant tune. Khaleda Zia declined to comment on gas exports till she formed her cabinet and "had a discussion on the issue", but her likely finance minister and economist Saifur Rehman was more forthcoming.

Petrowatch interviewed him in his hometown Sylhet, soon after confirmation of his election to parliament. His views will come as sweet music to the ears of Unocal, Shell, GAIL, Indian Oil and other companies with a vested interest in Bangladeshi gas.

Read on for excerpts.