Turnaround in Indo-Bangla ties?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Bangladesh on June 6 is quite significant in the context of his ‘neighbours first’ foreign policy. The Indian prime minister’s visit comes after his government completes one year in office. Bangladesh is strategically important to India for it provides connectivity through to the latter’s Northeastern States. In addition, India’s neighbour will also play a significant part in the maintenance of domestic security. The Modi government is, therefore, keen to bolster work on both issues.
The prime minister goes to Dhaka armed with a nod from Parliament for the 41-year-old Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), which was signed between the two countries. The presence of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the LBA signing ceremony in Dhaka adds another feather to his cap. In the past few months, Modi has reached out to Mamata, with the latter holding strong reservations against the LBA. Modi’s decision to reach out has created a thaw in their relationship. Banerjee soon changed her stand after extracting a significant compensation package. With the growing influence of regional satraps, such bonhomie is a good beginning for India’s foreign policy and Modi’s own theme of cooperative federalism.
This visit is significant because diplomatic relations between India and Bangladesh has been a <g data-gr-id="74">roller coaster</g> ride in the past four decades. Despite the positive role played by India, some contentious issues between the two countries remain unresolved. These range from diplomatic to economic and trade, border security and boundary lines, sharing of common and trans-boundary waters, communication and transit, illegal immigration and regional and national security against insurgent networks. After the Sheikh Hasina government took over in 2008, positive changes in the bilateral relations have led to considerable movement on almost all issues of contention. Bangladesh is also an important player in Modi’s “Act East” policy as it is the gateway to the East Asia. Both New Delhi and Dhaka realise the need to support each other for greater economic prosperity as well as keeping the region peaceful.
While Hasina needs New Delhi’s support to strengthen her own political base to deal with domestic opponents, Modi wants to improve India’s relations with its neighbors. Dhaka was worried about Modi’s pre-poll campaign rhetoric about illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The past one-year has, however, allayed these apprehensions.
Modi’s main aim during the two-day visit would revolve around the security-related transit corridor in the Northeast. About two lakh army and paramilitary forces are deployed in the Northeastern States to combat insurgents. It will also help improve connectivity. Dhaka is ready to renew the existing transit facility. Part of the security concern also relates to an angle, which involves China. New Delhi has long been concerned about Beijing’s military cooperation and its growing influence with Dhaka, as well as in the neighborhood. Modi wants to counter this influence by reaching out to Dhaka.
The highlight of the visit will be to showcase the LBA. By delivering on the LBA, Modi has taken the first proactive step to bail out Hasina, who needs all possible support. If Modi delivers on Teesta in the near future Hasina’s stock with her people will soar even further. The LBA deals with the transfer of 111 enclaves with a total area of 17,160.63 acres to Bangladesh while Dhaka is to transfer 51 enclaves with an area of 7,110.02 acres to India. A 6.1-km undefined border stretch will be demarcated after the Indian Parliament passed the bill.
The two leaders will also address the festering issue of the trade gap, which is still high. Bangladesh’s imports from India stood at $4.45 billion in 2014-2015 while exports stood at $396.43 million during the same period. New Delhi has already provided better market access to Bangladesh in its bid to reduce the trade imbalance. Dhaka, however, feels that there is a need to iron out some regulations, which have left an irritant in non-tariff barriers.
New Delhi’s decision to extend a $2 billion credit to Bangladesh will provide yet another timely boost to Hasina. This decision would help her show that New Delhi has addressed Bangladesh’s concerns as much as Dhaka’s has helped India on the security and connectivity front. The credit line is meant for building infrastructure like roads, bridges, power projects and ports in Bangladesh, which will help in establishing connectivity between Nepal and Bhutan to Bangladesh through India.
Besides the LBA, there are other economic agreements that are required to improve trade and connectivity, including the renewal of the revised trade agreement between India and Bangladesh and the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade. The Coastal Shipping Agreement, under which Bangladesh and India would initiate water-route transit and use each other’s important seaports, is quite important. Besides, the two neighbors are also expected to sign fresh agreements and memorandums of understanding in the areas of trade and investment, security, and energy. India and Bangladesh will sign a pact to eliminate human trafficking. Through this pact, New Delhi hopes that the flow of illegal immigrants would be checked. Any progress on the contentious Teesta treaty has been ruled out, as its modalities are still being worked out.
Modi has already visited Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China and Maldives. With this visit only Pakistan remains. China has made headway in the India’s neighborhood. How far Modi’s visit could counter the Chinese influence is yet to be seen. Well begun is half the work done.IPA