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13 April 2017, Gateway House

Ties with Bangladesh ‘a flowing river’

Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India earlier this week produced many tangible outcomes, but left some thorny issues unresolved, which may test the two nations’ political and diplomatic capabilities

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies

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Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has advanced mutual endeavours to strengthen a “fraternal relationship” through her state visit to India earlier this week. But the irony in this particular relationship is that the more it achieves, the more peaks there remain to be scaled. This may account for the notable divergence in perceptions of each other on the part of both countries.

Bangladesh, the second largest of our South Asian neighbours, has far warmer relations with India today than ever before. After Bhutan, it is the nation that enjoys the closest rapport with Delhi. Yet, Sheikh Hasina allowed seven years to pass before paying another visit, her earlier trip to India being in 2010. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh, President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook visits to Bangladesh in 2011, 2013 and 2015 respectively. The record of exchange of VVIP visits is good, but more frequent and less formal visits will contribute to deeper proximity and fuller implementation of a wide-ranging agenda of bilateral cooperation.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit led to the following important outcomes:

  • a “comprehensive review” of all aspects of the relationship that reflects “an all-encompassing partnership”;
  • a striking convergence of views and strategy on combating terrorism in the region;
  • the conclusion of 34 agreements–22 at the government level and 12 at the business level, entailing about $9 billion of likely new Indian investment in Bangladesh;
  • the extension by India of a new Line of Credit (LOC) of $4.5 billion for identified projects in Bangladesh. This is the largest single LOC offered by India to any country in the past. It comes in the wake of satisfactory progress in the utilisation of the earlier two LOCs of $862 million and $2 billion given to Bangladesh.
  • the signing of five MoUs relating to defence cooperation and extension of a new LOC of $500 million for procurement of defence equipment on flexible terms[1];
  • special stress on sub-regional cooperation in connectivity, power, water, trade and transit through platforms, such as the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal(BBIN)  and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Even the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM),  involving China, the reference to which had disappeared from India’s recent narratives, figured in the India-Bangladesh joint statement on this occasion.
  • assessment of the Hasina visit as symbolic of a shared and firm commitment to set “an example of good neighbourliness in the region.”[2] It holds lessons for other neighbours: that cooperation with India carries a range of tangible benefits.

These gains notwithstanding, a sense of dissatisfaction is noticeable in Bangladesh circles—for reasons that are obvious. The inability of the two countries to secure agreement on the sharing of the Teesta waters remained a significant stumbling block. The agreement was within the grip of the two governments in 2011, but in view of the opposition by the government of West Bengal, Delhi and Dhaka could not seal it. The Bangladesh prime minister delayed her visit inordinately. Eventually, she decided to come to impart a fresh momentum to the dialogue.

Even after the visit, the situation remains largely unchanged. Narendra Modi assured Sheikh Hasina that the Teesta agreement would be firmed up soon through joint efforts. A candid Bangladeshi columnist raised the difficult question: “…how soon is soon.”[3] Informed Bangladesh experts had projected this issue as “the litmus test.”[4] It is one that needs to be resolved, with Delhi and Kolkata first developing a modus vivendi and then crafting a solution that is unlikely to be radically different from the 2011 understanding.[5]  The path will then be cleared for a broader dialogue on common river basin management.

Bangladesh’s other grievances, such as concern over trade deficit and delay in visas, lack credibility now. India Inc has been displaying greater confidence in the business climate of Bangladesh by voting with its investment decisions. The Indian High Commission in Dhaka has brought about dramatic progress in grant of visas. More consular facilities are being established. The number of Bangladeshis visiting India for medical reasons, and tourism, in general, is on the increase. The argument that even informed Indians do not understand how Bangladesh has developed in recent years is not tenable either.[6]

There are, however, two complex and sensitive political questions that require careful handling. At a time when India-China relations are under distinct stress, Bangladesh continues to profess neutrality, showing commitment to forge strong relations with both countries. Some Bangladeshi experts, in fact, want Dhaka to play a leading role in developing “trilateral cooperation”[7] in the economic fields, involving India, China and Bangladesh. A few actions indicate Dhaka’s preference for China.[8]

The second issue relates to Myanmar and the impact of its Rohingya problem on Bangladesh. Until this thorny matter is resolved, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are unlikely to reach the level of maturity that is a prerequisite for the full success of BIMSTEC. Besides, both Bangladesh and Myanmar expect India to help them find a solution to this.

These two questions will test the limits of both countries’ political and diplomatic capabilities.

Many in India tend to view Bangladesh as mainly a South Asian power. But it has ambitions beyond the region: it is engaged in broadening its cooperation with China rapidly and wants to expand its footprint in South East Asia. Its desire to become an integral part of India’s Act East Policy makes sense from this perspective. Delhi and Dhaka could do much more to make sub-regional cooperation effective. For this too, each should take the other into confidence about crucial equations with China and Myanmar. Sheikh Hasina’s visit may have created a better climate to carry forward such a dialogue.

As the visiting leader observed, the friendship between the two nations is like “a flowing river and full with generosity.”[9] Both sides need to take care to nurture this flow.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador.

This feature was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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References

[1] Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haq stated: “The line of credit for military procurement is friendly, flexible and liberal and we are not bound to use it to source our supplies only from Indian companies.” The Hindu, 9 April 2017.

[2] India – Bangladesh Joint Statement during the State Visit of Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India (April 8, 2017), para 60 <http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/28362/India__Bangladesh_Joint_Statement_during_the_State_Visit_of_Prime_Minister_of_Bangladesh_to_India_April_8_2017 >

[3] Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd), “And dry flows the Teesta . . . still”, The Daily Star, 10 April 2017 http://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/strategically-speaking/and-dry-flows-the-teesta-still-1388695

[4] Tariq Karim, The Hindu, 5 April 2017.

[5] “Why Delhi, Dhaka can’t agree on Teesta deal,” The Times of India, 9 April 2017.

[6] Please see the interview with Farooq Sobhan, Prothom Alo, 4 April 2017.  http://en.prothom-alo.com/opinion/news/144285/’India-needs-to-be-sensitive-about-Bangladesh’s

[7] Ibid.

[8] Please see Syed Badrul Ahsan, “A new Delhi chapter for Sheikh Hasina”, The Hindu, 6 April 2017.

[9] Sheikh Hasina, “Friendship is a flowing river,” The Hindu, 7 April 2017.

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