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Business News/ Opinion / Hasina-Modi set to uplift Delhi-Dhaka ties

Hasina-Modi set to uplift Delhi-Dhaka ties

Modi's visit will be marked by further consolidation of bilateral ties, the instrument of ratification on the LBA will be exchanged, putting to rest an irritating legacy of Partition

Posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee put up along a road in Dhaka, Bangladesh ahead of PM Modi's visit. Photo: PTIPremium
Posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee put up along a road in Dhaka, Bangladesh ahead of PM Modi's visit. Photo: PTI

So far, Prime Minister Modi’s Bangladesh visit was on the pending list. There were good reasons for that decision. It was essential to wrap up for delivery two important bilateral agreements before landing in Dhaka, namely the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. The former United Progressive Alliance government, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had finalized both these agreements but had failed to build the necessary domestic momentum and political consensus for them to fructify. Opposition from the state governments of Assam and West Bengal held up implementation of both agreements.

Modi seized the initiative, first by signalling a more pro-active neighbourhood policy from day one — he sprang a pleasant surprise by inviting the leaders of SAARC countries and the Prime Minister of Mauritius to attend his swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, raising hopes of better days to come in the India’s neighbourhood. Second, he began a systematic outreach to state chief ministers belonging to opposition parties under the cooperative federalism initiative. These initiatives have paid dividends and after Modi’s visit to Kolkata recently, a political deal was sealed. It did require some financial lubrication for West Bengal to encourage chief minister Mamata Banerjee to shift her position. The central government has promised to compensate the state for expenditure on rehabilitating people, uprooted as a result of the implementation of the LBA with Bangladesh. It seems an advance amount has already been paid. Mamata has come half way by agreeing to the LBA and accepting the invitation to join the Prime Minister’s delegation on the trip to Dhaka on 6 and 7 June. Mamata has not yet agreed to the Teesta agreement which will have to wait for a more propitious timing, perhaps next year, after the elections in West Bengal. Meanwhile, Mamata will need convincing that the water sharing formula in the Teesta agreement is fair to the people of North Bengal. This is a card she is keeping up her sleeve to parley for more central funds for her state. Mamata has shown that she can walk the talk of statesmanship by agreeing to accompany the prime minister on his forthcoming, important and first visit to Bangladesh.

The previous government in Bangladesh, led by Begum Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in coalition with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, had slyly cooperated with the Pakistan and permitted Pakistani spy agency Inter Services Intelligence to operate and support anti-India activities and operations. As a result, Bangladesh-India relations went downhill. With the Awami League (AL) led by Sheikh Hasina returning power, both countries got down to the serious business of working out an understanding on sensitive issues. The last six years that Sheikh Hasina has been in power has, therefore, seen a major upswing in bilateral ties. Hasina has cooperated fully on issues of immediate concern to India - security, counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency. This cooperation has been vital to curb insurgency in Assam, Tripura and Manipur. Insurgent bases and hideouts in Bangladesh have been destroyed and their leaders have been handed over to India. India, therefore, has fully supported the Hasina government, even when it came under some international criticism for holding elections in 2013 when some opposition parties boycotted the election.

Modi’s forthcoming visit will be marked by further consolidation of bilateral ties. The instrument of ratification on the LBA will be exchanged, putting to rest an irritating legacy of Partition. There will be a slew of agreements in various sectors. Many will be about connectivity – railways, bus services from Guwahati/Shillong to Dhaka, Agartala-Dhaka-Kolkata, new waterway channels etc. New railway connectivity along the northern border will help Bhutan and Nepal to connect with Bangladesh railways for the underutilized Khulna port on the Bay of Bengal. India is likely to contribute to the building of IT infrastructure and training, discuss issues relating to the power sector and provide another large line of credit to Bangladesh. The electricity grids of the two countries were connected in late 2013 and electricity from India is flowing into Bangladesh’s grid, bringing much-needed power to fill up the deficit in electricity production. Possibilities exist of wheeling power through Bangladesh from the sub-Himalayan hydro-electric projects in Arunachal Pradesh for distribution via the Indian grid. Upgrading security and intelligence ties and closer cooperation in counter-terrorism will be essential as both countries face the recrudescence of radical Islamism, Bangladesh more than India.

Future ties will be built on better connectivity that will progressively integrate the eastern region of the sub-continent. India’s north-eastern states will benefit from access via Bangladesh for flow of goods. Sub-regional cooperation involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar and Nepal will help India’s “Act East" policy. The leadership has to bite the bullet on illegal human trafficking that has taken root in Bangladesh. Border management has to improve with a humanitarian touch, since livelihoods of people living along the border depend on the informal flow of goods i.e. smuggling. Border infrastructure for formal trade, better banking facilities and easing non-tariff barriers have to be tackled. If regional integration is the goal, as the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu has proclaimed, then facilitating legal movement of people will require more innovative measures like introduction of work permits and easing of visa procedures. Bangladesh and India have the opportunity of building a brighter future under the enlightened leadership of prime ministers Hasina and Modi, with both at the helm of power for the next 4 years.

(The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and a former High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh)

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Published: 06 Jun 2015, 10:58 AM IST
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