What to expect from PM Modi’s Dhaka visit?

March 09, 2020

What to expect from PM Modi’s Dhaka visit?

On March 5, India’s External Affairs Ministry made it clear that the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh for “Mujib Borsho” celebration is on. Not that any clarity was required at least in India. But questions were being whispered in certain quarters in Bangladesh if the Modi visit would indeed go ahead in the backdrop of unease in that country after the communal violence in Delhi over the Citizenship Amendment Act.

There are a number of reasons why Modi should visit Dhaka for the launch of the birth centenary celebration of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the most important being the high stakes in the larger picture of the relations between the two countries which have been shaped by individuals but transcend them. The picture today covers a wide range of areas—political, economic and strategic—since taking a quantum leap since Sheikh Hasina assumed power as prime minister in 2009 and Modi became the chief executive in May 2014.

The last 48 years have, to quote a popular line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, seen the best of times and the worst of times in India-Bangladesh relations, swinging from near stagnancy to unprecedented vibrancy. Even in the darkest patches of ties during the military regime under Ziaur Rahman, some years of HM Ershad and the civilian rule of Khaleda Zia, what has survived is a working relationship even at the worst of times.

New Delhi has always maintained that it is ready to do business with those in power in Bangladesh on any given day. One has to just recall that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had rushed his National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra to meet the new government in Dhaka after the 2001 parliamentary elections which saw the BNP returning to power. It is a different matter that Khaleda Zia failed to respond to that gesture, leaving the bilateral ties to drift dangerously. That drift was arrested by Sheikh Hasina on coming back to power as she took care not only to address India’s foremost security concerns regarding insurgency in its north eastern states, but in tandem first with Manmohan Singh as prime minister of a Congress-led dispensation and then with Modi helming a BJP-led government.

Hasina and Modi have invested heavily in the relationship—politically and economically—over the last decade or so. The divergent ideological colours of Awami League and Bharatiya Janata Party have not been allowed to come in the way of burgeoning ties. This showed as much of the bipartisan support Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina enjoys in India as her own ability to not allow the ties to be bedevilled by the traditional perception about the BJP in Bangladesh. Also, Sheikh Hasina has not allowed the ties to be stuck by the unresolved Teesta river water-sharing issue which is of immense importance to vast swathes of Bangladesh.

No less significant was Modi, who worked past his party’s long-held opposition to any swap of territories with Bangladesh to help secure parliamentary nod to implement the landmark land boundary agreement (LBA) in 2015, resolving one of the major irritants in bilateral relations. Many in India had at that time attributed BJP’s about-turn on LBA to Modi’s penchant for springing surprises when it comes to foreign policy. But behind that lies India’s long-term strategic vision in which Bangladesh occupies a key place.

There were murmurs in Bangladesh whether Modi’s forthcoming visit to Dhaka would be an appropriate move so soon after the violence in Delhi and the concerns over them were raised in that country. There is unanimity in both India and Bangladesh that riots should not have happened. But there are sharp differences between Dhaka and New Delhi over CAA-NRC. Should these differences be held against a prime ministerial visit from India after having been invited by Sheikh Hasina herself? The debate on this would continue even after Modi’s visit. But India-Bangladesh cooperation should continue to grow like it has done even after the controversial remark by Manmohan Singh, known for his careful choice of diction, in 2011, that one-fourth of Bangladesh’s population was “anti-Indian and they are in the clutches, many times of the ISI.”

A key signal sent by both Dhaka and Delhi for Modi’s coming visit is that it is not just for the “Mujib Borsho” event and there will be a “bilateral component” to it, as pointed out by the Indian External Affairs Ministry. During Modi’s stay in Dhaka, the two countries are likely to launch rail and waterways connectivity projects that would not only promote enhancing connectivity in the Bay of Bengal area but also help position Bangladesh as an important cog in the much bigger Indo-Pacific region promoted by the United States, India and several other countries.

A project is also likely to be initiated to improve the navigability of rivers within Bangladesh that would facilitate easier waterway links between northern and southern parts of the country. Enhancing navigability of rivers in Bangladesh would go a long way in strengthening maritime trade not only with India but also beyond with South East Asian countries. At present, nearly the entire volume of cargo that travels from India to Bangladesh using the riverine route, ends at Narayanganj and Khulna and efforts should be made to expand the network of the inland waterways covering Assam, Tripura and Mizoram and other ports in Bangladesh.

With so much at stake in Bangladesh-India development cooperation, should few incidents, controversial rhetoric, non-resolution of some important issues and differences over citizenship issue be allowed to define such a relationship? The ideological differences between the two governments in India and Bangladesh are natural and will remain but the ties should not get stuck in the quagmire.

 

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.

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