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Enhancing ties

The NDA government was successful in getting the Bengal Chief Minister to endorse the LBA, but the Teesta issue remains a point of difference.

Enhancing ties
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will embark on her first visit to India in seven years on April 7. For both nations, this visit comes at a crucial juncture. India shares a good rapport with the Hasina-led Awami League government, developed over years of mutual assistance. The signing of the Land Boundary Agreement in 2015 and growing trade and commerce ties have improved relations in the last three years. Bangladesh is now India's largest trading partners in South Asia. The volume of bilateral trade between the two nations stands at $6.6 billion. Although there are estimates that trade between the two countries will cross $10 billion by 2018, there is scope for much improvement. The balance of trade heavily works in India's favour, but given the relative sizes and economic potential of both nations, one can expect such an outcome. Anti-India forces in the country have argued that the massive trade deficit impinges on Bangladesh's economic sovereignty. The same forces, however, seem to have no problem with the trade deficit the country shares with China, which incidentally is a lot bigger. Nonetheless, there must be a concerted effort to reduce this deficit, as Bangladesh currently imports goods worth $5.45 billion from India, while exporting just $690 million. Last year, both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina signed a host of agreements that allowed the Indian mainland access to its Northeast and South East Asia through routes in Bangladesh. "Launch of trans-shipment operations combining riverine and land routes last year have enabled India to deliver goods through Bangladesh to Nepal and Bhutan in a third of the previous time and reduced transport cost by almost half. After turning power surplus last year, India has been working with Bangladesh to double the capacity of existing transmission interconnects. There are plans to set up a third link for increasing cross-border electricity trade for widening the regional market as new generation capacities come up," wrote Syed Munir Khasru, the Chairman of the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance, in a recent column for a leading national daily. The growth of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)—a multilateral group aiming to revive the vibrant commerce around the Bay of Bengal—is also another positive step in that direction. Recent reports also seem to indicate that India is also expected to announce a fresh credit line worth about US$5 billion—the highest offered to any country so far—for infrastructure development, which is likely to be finalised when Hasina arrives later this week on her visit to India. Of course, this sum does not compare to the $24 billion China has offered to Bangladesh in development aid. Considering its economic prowess, China can indeed afford to pump in more money, but it comes with strings attached. When China issues credit to Bangladesh, the projects are identified first, whereas, in India's case, this isn't necessarily the case.

One of the biggest tests standing before Hasina will be her ability to get New Delhi to signing a water-sharing agreement on the Teesta River. Both sides nearly reached a deal in 2011, but standing in the way was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The NDA government was successful in getting the Bengal Chief Minister to endorse the LBA, but the Teesta issue remains a point of difference. "Although Article 253 of the Constitution gives the Centre the power to conclude any treaty, it cannot ignore the concerns of the people of the state. Mamata wants to protect the interests of five districts in North Bengal which would be affected if more water were released to Bangladesh and there is no meeting point so far. This is the crux of the issue," wrote Kalyani Shankar in a recent column in this newspaper. The bottom line is that there are domestic compulsions that Mamata must take into consideration, and she cannot go against her state's interests. She cannot serve as a rubber stamp, and Prime Minister Modi must assure her that Bengal's interests are not compromised in the water-sharing deal. There are aspects of the river water agreement that have to be implemented by West Bengal's irrigation department, and the Centre must take cognizance of this fact.

Enhancing defence ties will also be on the agenda during Hasina's visit. The recent spike in terror-related violence in Bangladesh presents a potent backdrop to the possible signing of a major defence agreement between both nations. Beijing's growing influence too, with the recent signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Dhaka during Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit, also presents a compelling backdrop. Besides promising $40 billion in investments and selling two submarines, China has sought to usurp India's influence in the country. Although the Hasina government has taken a whole host of measures to tackle this security threat, terrorists continue to indulge in audacious attacks, especially in the days leading up to Hasina's upcoming visit to India. Terror groups like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jehad, Hefazat-e-Islam, elements from the banned Jamat-e-Islami (JeI) and its affiliates with links to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, a few other Gulf countries who believe in 'Islamising' Bangladesh through the instrument of terror, are still alive and kicking. Last year, Bangladesh's Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu made the stunning claim that Pakistan's all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had trained up to 8,000 Bangladeshi jihadis in the last two years and sent them back to launch a violent campaign. "They are trying to avenge 1971, they can't get over it," the minister said. Bangladesh's intelligence community has furnished several details of Pakistan-trained terrorists. The ISI's alleged aim here is to foment terror, undermine the Hasina government, and fan communal tensions between Hindu minorities and majority Muslims in a bid to derail Indo-Bangla ties. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's singular focus on Pakistan-sponsored terror has received the unflinching support of the Bangladesh government--a real convergence of interests. Within the international community, Bangladesh has proven to be India's greatest supporter in its recent conflagration with Pakistan. Experts contend that Bangladesh is now India's closest ally in South Asia, ahead of Nepal. On the sidelines of the BRICs summit last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded Hasina for coming up with a comprehensive plan to crackdown on militancy and has said that it could be a model for other countries. New Delhi has made concerted efforts to reach out to Dhaka and offered all assistance, both regarding intelligence and equipment. Considering the past support the Hasina government has afforded India with the dismantling of the United Liberation Front of Asom, and the convergence of interests in dealing with the threat of Islamist terrorism, India must extend any support necessary.
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