Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s forthcoming visit to Dhaka may end up being his most important visit abroad in recent years. For not only is Bangladesh a vastly populous neighbour, but also one with which India has had a difficult history. His visit holds out the hope that matters may finally change after many false starts.
Agreements on sharing of river waters, exchange of enclaves —small pieces of Indian and Bangladeshi territory located on the wrong side of the border— better trade relations and the possibility of accessing transit routes for north-eastern states via Bangladesh are all in the realm of the possible now.
Scarcely five years ago, all this would have seemed difficult if not impossible. What has led to this change are two factors. One, there is the right kind of leadership in both capitals, each of them willing to seize the moment as it were. But even more importantly, there is growing realization that confrontation and misgivings—more imagined than real—are not worth pursuing: Their costs are far higher than any benefits.
For India, friendly relations with Dhaka are more important than ever. In a difficult external environment, it’s best if at least one side of the problem is fixed. A friendly Bangladesh that sees its future economic prospects and prosperity linked to India is a very good insurance policy. At the moment, India (and Indian garment manufacturers) are quibbling about the number of duty-free pieces that should be allowed from Bangladesh.
This makes short-term sense for our firms, but poor strategic sense. If greater imports lead to more jobs in Bangladesh, chances are the latter will be more careful in managing the bilateral relationship. And garment exports are just one aspect of an overall trade relationship that can benefit both countries. If this is set on the right path, it will—sooner or later—impart a measure of stability east of the Farakka Barrage.
If that happens, it will enable India to focus its attention to more pressing problems elsewhere in South Asia. That possibility, however, depends on seizing the opportunity in Dhaka now. Indications are that Singh understands the importance of doing so. If to cement better ties, a bit more has to be given to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, it should be done unhesitatingly: That will not only strengthen her hands, but also of those who believe in friendship with India.
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