Dhaka, Bangladesh (BBN)-Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day state visit to Bangladesh ended with renewed hopes both in Dhaka and New Delhi for an improved relationship between the two neighbors.
Although the long-awaited water share treaty over the common river Teesta saw little progress, Modi gave Dhaka hope for a future peaceful resolution, reports the Forbes.
Sheikh Hasina’s government is keeping the faith in Modi, as evidenced by the Bangladeshi prime minister only vaguely mentioning the issue during a joint press conference so as to avoid embarrassing her Indian counterpart.
And for the time being, Dhaka can still afford to be patient, thanks to Modi’s apparent willingness to build a meaningful partnership with Bangladesh.
For it was no small feat in getting India’s parliament to finally pass the Land Border Agreement (LBA), which Modi views as “no less significant than the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
With the border settlement, Modi has been able to earn Dhaka’s trust and support – two key elements needed to curb China’s growing influence on India’s doorstep.
Over the years, the Indo-Bangladeshi relationship has been filled with bittersweet episodes, often characterised by a lack of mutual trust, misunderstandings and conflicting ideological stances taken by political parties in both countries.
When Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2008, she put a premium on improving ties with Delhi.
India’s then Congress-led government welcomed her efforts.
The historic ties between Hasina’s Awami League party and Congress, which date back to Bangladesh’s struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971, have acted as a catalyst in furthering the process.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka with the intention to reciprocate the Hasina government’s good intention by forging stronger ties, but the trip ended in diplomatic embarrassment instead.
Due to vehement opposition from a key political actor at home, namely the chief minister of India’s West Bengal province, Singh left without sealing the Teesta deal, leaving many in Dhaka disappointed.
Dhaka and Delhi continued to see ups and downs in bilateral relations.
Meanwhile, the China-Bangladesh friendship has only strengthened in recent years.
For example, when the Hasina government faced the potential embarrassment of leading financial institutions, e.g. the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, refusing to finance Bangladesh’s biggest infrastructure project, the Padma Bridge, China was there to lend a helping hand.
China remains one of the biggest development partners of Bangladesh.
Likewise, Bangladesh has become one of the biggest importers of Chinese arms.
The Bangladesh Navy was even close to procuring submarines from China until Delhi reportedly ramped up its lobbying to dissuade Dhaka from making the acquisition.
Indian discomfort to Chinese-made hardware lurking around nearby waters in addition to China’s growing influence in Dhaka is understandable.
Therefore, the Modi government came up with offers that Dhaka cherishes: Investment in power, loans to develop infrastructures, and assurances for greater regional interconnectivity to boost trade and business.
India has agreed to increase its power export to 1,100 megawatts from the current 500 megawatts.
In addition, Indian companies will build several power plants to help meet Bangladesh’s growing power demands.
Moreover, an opportunity to import Nepal and Bhutan’s surplus hydroelectricity is within reach for Bangladesh given that India is granting access to these countries through its territory.
A clearly elated Dhaka then reciprocated India’s generosity with a package that includes: Transit to India’s northeastern provinces, access for Indian cargo to Chittagong and Mongla ports, and a special economic zone exclusive to Indian investors, the first of its kind for India in South Asia.
A transit over Bangladeshi territory to India’s seven-sister provinces has been a longstanding request from Delhi.
But due to its sensitivity in domestic politics, no Bangladeshi government – not even Hasina’s first term government in the late-1990s – has been willing to offer such a concession.
Access to Bangladeshi seaports is of great economic and strategic advantage to the Indians.
Transiting through Bangladesh also means India can cut the time and cost to transport goods and supplies to its northeast significantly, which certainly benefits the Indian armed forces that have a massive presence in those restive provinces.
From a strategic perspective, India will also gain access to Chittagong, where China had been proposing to build a deep seaport.
Thus, Modi’s trip to Bangladesh has helped him to score a number of strategic triumphs.
However, India should not forget there still remains a host of issues that need urgent attention, such as India’s shoot-on-sight policy for illegal border crossings, narrowing the bilateral trade deficit and water distribution rights for common rivers are among them.
It is also true that the LBA required the Modi government to put in a great deal of legwork.
After all, it was no easy task to get India’s lawmakers to finally ratify a deal reached with Bangladesh way back in 1974.
So it’s no wonder that Dhaka thinks it has found an ally in Modi.
The LBA is of great significance to both India and Bangladesh.
The agreement allows for the two countries to exchange parcels of land on either side of the border that had belonged to the other side since long before Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan.
The people living in the enclaves, who were effectively stateless, will have the option of choosing their nationality. But it carries an additional diplomatic importance for Delhi.
A peaceful settlement of this long outstanding issue sends a signal to Beijing that the Modi is willing to sit down with his Chinese counterpart to settle the border disputes through constructive discussion.
Modi expressed his intention to improve ties with India’s neighbors as he invited the leaders of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) member countries to his oath taking ceremony.
Subsequently, he went on to tout his ‘neighborhood first policy’ that experts believe is a much-needed policy shift for India to alter its “big brother” image – a perception shared by countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Modi’s initiative to create an interconnected neighborhood is praiseworthy.
However, success of his diplomatic efforts will depend on how far India is willing to go in offering incentives to its neighbors.
Should India falter along the way, Beijing will promptly turn the event into its benefit as evidenced by Chinese state media Xinhua referencing Teesta in its analysis that was titled: “Indian PM wraps up state visit, leaving behind ‘thirsty Bangladesh.’”