Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s daughter Saima Wazed bagged the coveted post of regional director of World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Southeast Asia region.
Wazed was pitted against Nepal’s Dr Shambhu Acharya, a renowned public health expert who has held senior positions in the WHO.
In the elections held Wednesday (1 November), Wazed bagged the votes of eight of the eleven member nations, while Acharya could manage only two. Myanmar did not attend the 76th session of the WHO Regional Committee for Southeast Asia Region that started in New Delhi on Monday (30 October).
The eleven member states are India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, South Korea, the Maldives, Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Thailand.
Both Dhaka and Kathmandu had requested New Delhi for its support to ensure the victory of their respective candidates. That presented a dilemma for India since it is friendly with both its neighbours and is keen to keep them happy.
South Block — which houses the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) — had to walk a tightrope. Nepal was keen that its candidate, who is serving as the Director, Country Strategy and Support, at the Office of the WHO Director General at Geneva in Switzerland, bags the post.
Bangladesh was equally keen that Saima Wazed, a global autism advocate who was a member of WHO’s expert advisory panel on mental health, gets the post. In fact, the Bangladesh government made it a prestige issue since its candidate was the daughter of the country’s Prime Minister.
Both Kathmandu and Dhaka requested New Delhi to leverage its considerable influence over the other member states and ensure the victory of its respective candidate.
MEA mandarins were confronted with an uneasy situation and knew that India could not please one of its neighbours at the cost of the other.
MEA officials told Swarajya that India could ill-afford to displease any of its two neighbours. New Delhi is keen on strengthening its ties with both the countries, and not in the least to ward off China’s constant efforts to strengthen its footprints in South Asia.
“We (India) have huge stakes in Nepal as well as Bangladesh. We realised that supporting one of the two countries’ candidates could easily turn public opinion in the other country against us. That would be a setback to bilateral ties,” explained the senior MEA officer.
Officers of the MEA’s Northern Division that oversees ties with Nepal and Bhutan, and the BM (Bangladesh and Myanmar) Division, started working with the Indian missions in the two countries to find a way to keep both the countries happy.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina conveyed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi through a top aide that she was keen on her daughter getting the post.
That put New Delhi in an unenviable situation since the request came from the Bangladesh Prime Minister.
“Sheikh Hasina is critical for the success of many bilateral projects, including connectivity projects, that have been implemented or are in the pipeline. Her request, delivered to our PM, could not be turned down so easily,” the director-level MEA officer told Swarajya.
After considerable debate that included weighing the pros and cons of supporting the requests of either of the two countries, New Delhi decided in favour of Bangladesh.
“Sheikh Hasina’s personal prestige was involved and it would have been embarrassing for her if her daughter failed to make it to the post. With parliamentary elections in Bangladesh just two months away, it was necessary to spare her such an embarrassment,” the MEA officer reasoned.
MEA officers then started working on Nepal. New Delhi reached out to Nepal’s foreign ministry and explained its compulsions.
Kathmandu was requested not to make the elections to the post a prestige issue and insist on New Delhi’s support for its candidate. In return for that, Nepal was promised some favourable trade deals.
A senior minister in Nepal played a pivotal role in convincing Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal against pushing Dr Acharya’s candidature too hard.
This minister, who has strong links with India, was instrumental in convincing Dahal that flexibility on Kathmandu’s part would accrue larger gains for the country.
Thankfully for New Delhi, Dahal understood and acquiesced to New Delhi’s request and said that the contest between the two candidates would be a ‘friendly’ one. But not before New Delhi promised some ‘sweeteners’.
The most important deal offered to Nepal by New Delhi is the signing of a long-term power trade agreement between the two countries by the end of this month (November).
Nepal is keen on this agreement, which was initiated during Prime Minister Dahal’s visit to New Delhi in May-June this year. This 25-year agreement is expected to facilitate trading of power, under medium and long term power sales agreements, between the two countries.
Prime Minister Modi had announced during Dahal’s visit (to New Delhi) that India will purchase 10,000 MW of power over 10 years from Nepal. But the agreement could not be formally signed that time since the Indian cabinet had not endorsed it.
New Delhi told Kathmandu that the agreement will be signed at the next secretary-level Joint Steering Committee meeting. This meeting has been pending for the last couple of months and India has now promised Nepal that the meeting will be held immediately after Deepavali.
Nepal is very keen on this agreement since this long term guarantee for sale of power would enable it to attract foreign investments in its power sector.
After having convinced Kathmandu not to insist on the victory of its candidate, New Delhi concentrated its efforts on getting the other member states to support Dhaka’s candidate.
India unofficially announced its support for Saima Wazed and informally and quietly requested the other countries, especially Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand and South Korea — countries with which it has very close ties — to vote for the Bangladesh Premier’s daughter.
Nepal’s foreign ministry spokesperson Sewa Lamsal said after the results were known Wednesday (1 November) evening: “It was a friendly contest. We will fully support and cooperate with the newly-elected (WHO) regional director”.
Bangladesh was, of course, overjoyed and touted the victory of its Prime Minister’s daughter as evidence of the country’s growing clout in the region. It also took care to thank all countries, especially India, for their support.
But both — Nepal’s muted and mild response to the defeat of its candidate and Bangladesh’s glee over Saima Wazed’s victory — could happen due to India’s behind-the-scenes deft diplomacy.
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