A new chapter unfolds

A new chapter unfolds
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Bangladesh in the first week of next month will be very different from his predecessors’ visit in September of 2011. That visit was a diplomatic embarrassment as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to accompany Manmohan Singh. Banerjee was dead against the signing of the Indo-Bangla Teesta river water-sharing treaty, which was to be the main item on the agenda for talks. In light of Mamata’s stentorian opposition, Manmohan could not sign the agreement, much to the chagrin and disappointment of key leaders of both sides.

This time the ambiance for talks is very different. Mamata has pragmatically revised her earlier stand on the Teesta waters issue. In fact, during her visit to Dhaka this February, she is understood to have assured the leaders of Bangladesh that there would be no further problem in sharing Teesta waters. The West Bengal Chief Minister is accompanying the prime minister and high hopes have been raised regarding possible outcomes of this visit. Significantly, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh during his visit to Kolkata a few days ago exuded confidence on this account. “We are hopeful about getting the full cooperation of West Bengal Government”, he had said. 

The decks have also been cleared for the signing of the Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement after the passage of the Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament. This will solve the problem of the refugee ‘enclaves’ in each other’s territory. The actual act of putting pen to paper and signing the deal will be a mere formality. This will resolve a long-festering problem that had been persisting for over forty long years and has been a constant irritant in bilateral relations since the days when Bangladesh was the erstwhile East Pakistan. 

There is no doubt that in this changed ambience, Dhaka is also looking forward to Modi’s visit with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm. An official communiqué issued in Dhaka said that the “entire gamut of the bilateral relationship” would be reviewed. Two issues that are expected to figure prominently in the talks are an expansion of cooperation in the fields of energy and connectivity and transport of goods from the North-East to Kolkata through Bangladesh. 

In fact, India’s dithering on the Teesta waters issue had made things difficult. Without saying so, Bangladesh made the transit agreement of goods contingent upon our agreeing to share Teesta waters, especially during the lean period from December to March. Now, with the Teesta hurdle crossed, arriving at the transit agreement will be easier. There is a flip side to this as well. As India needs a trade corridor from the North-East to the East via Bangladesh, Dhaka also wants India to allow a corridor for exporting goods from Bangladesh to Nepal and Bhutan through India. If it materialises it will be a quid pro quo deal. Dhaka has recently renewed the demand.

Another thorny issue in the bilateral relationship is the one-sided nature of the Indo-Bangladesh bilateral trade. The volume of trade has been steadily increasing. Trade and business circles estimate that the trade between the two countries will cross $10 billion by 2018. The trade deficit suffered by Bangladesh has risen from $774 million in 2000 to $2,910 million in 2010, and it continues to rise. 
A relationship of mutual trust and goodwill is of paramount importance for both countries. Communal elements are active on both sides of the border. As we are keenly watching how the Sheikh Hasina government is dealing with rank communal organisations like the Jamaat and its allies, Bangladesh is also watching India under NDA rule and how its government is dealing with the ‘fringe elements’ in the Sangh Parivar and its allies, some of whom have gone to the extent of demanding that the Muslims be disenfranchised. 

It is a good thing that after the Lok Sabha polls the BJP has toned down its strident demand for ‘driving out all Bangladeshis’ from India. The position of Bangladesh in this regard has been consistent: there are no ‘illegal immigrants’ who have gone from Bangladesh to India. Any attempt to <g data-gr-id="60">hound</g> out ‘Bangladeshi refugees’ cannot but have a negative impact on Indo-Bangla relations. 
India has to be accommodating of Bangladesh on a number of issues, from river water sharing to trade and transit to cooperation in power generation. Hasina’s opponents are constantly trying to paint her as a pro-India leader. 

Any false step by India will only weaken her position and strengthen her opponents. Now that the two major hurdles to improving Indo-Bangla relations have been crossed, India has to help Bangladesh more purposefully in her economic development. India has already opened a credit line of $1 billion to Bangladesh. But more needs to be done at the micro level. India has to ascertain in which sectors Bangladesh needs India’s economic and technical assistance to accelerate its pace of development and how fruitfully India can contribute in the process. Narendra Modi’s coming visit assumes great significance in this perspective. IPA
Barun Das Gupta

Barun Das Gupta

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