Harsh V Pant
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh is a sign of an important course correction in Delhi-Dhaka ties. For years now, India’s relations with Bangladesh have been suffering as New Delhi failed to capitalise on the propitious political circumstances in Bangladesh in recent years with the coming to power of Bangladesh Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina, who has taken great political risks to restore momentum in bilateral ties since 2008.
Bureaucratic inertia and lack of political will on India’s part has prevented serious progress on outstanding bilateral issues. Dhaka has been seeking an expeditious Indian response to its demand for the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi products. There has also been little movement on the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) earlier and on a water-sharing agreement for the Teesta river, which is crucial to agricultural production in north-western Bangladesh. India failed to meaningfully reciprocate Hasina’s overtures.
Meanwhile, the opposition Bangla-desh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been using the India-Bangladesh cordiality under Hasina to criticise the government for perceived subservience to India. India-Bangladesh ties had reached their lowest ebb during the 2001-06 tenure of the BNP government.
It was in 2010 that then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee signed a $1 billion loan deal with the Hasina gov-ernment, the largest line of credit received by Bangladesh under a single agreement. India’s Exim Bank had signed this line of credit agreement with Bangladesh government’s economic relations division and the loan was to be used to develop railways and communications infrastructure.
This deal carried 1.75 per cent interest and would be repayable in 20 years, including a five-year grace period. It was offered during Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010. This was followed by the two countries signing a 35-year electricity transmission deal under which India will be exporting up to 500 mw of power to Bangladesh. Dhaka also signed a $1.7 billion pact with the National Thermal Power Corporation for the construction of two coal-fired plants in southern Bangladesh. Despite these initiatives, India failed to build on the momentum provided by Hasina’s visit with its failure to implement two major bilateral agreements – finalisation of land boundary demarcation and the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river.
Now, Modi after successfully shepherding the LBA in Parliament, settled a 41-year-old border dispute with the eastern neighbour. The implementation of the LBA will allow the two countries to exchange land in each other’s territory and will also resolve the long-standing problem of land in adverse possession.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee who had refused to accompany then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Bangladesh in September 2011, joined Modi during his visit, riding on expectations that Delhi and Dhaka might even be able to move forward on an accord on Teesta water sharing that has been held up by West Bengal’s concerns.
Bangladesh is rightly upset at the slow pace in the implementation of these pacts. Hasina has taken great political risk to put momentum back into bilateral ties. But there has been no serious attempt on India’s part to settle outstanding issues. New Delhi’s window of opportunity will not exist forever. Anti-Indian sentiments can be marginalised if India allows Bangladesh to harness its economic growth and present it with greater opportunities. Yet, India remains obsessed with ‘AfPak’ and has failed to give due attention to Bangladesh.
India is the central issue around which Bangladeshi political parties define their foreign policy agenda. This shouldn’t be a surprise given India’s size and geographic linkages. Over the years, political parties opposing the Awami League have tended to define themselves in opposition to India, in effect portraying the party as India’s ‘stooge’. Moreover, radical Islamic groups have tried to buttress their own ‘Islamic identities’ by attacking India.
Ever since she came to power in December 2008, Sheikh Hasina has faced challenges from right-wing parties as well as the fundamentalist organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen which enjoy Pakistan’s support. These groups are united in undermining efforts to improve ties with New Delhi.
The greatest challenge that Hasina overcame in her first year was the mutiny by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles, which erupted in February, 2009. It soon became clear that the mutineers were being instigated by supporters of the opposition led by the BNP and others connected to the Jamaat-e-Islami. India supported Hasina’s crackdown on the mutineers by sealing its borders with Bangladesh and forcing back mutineers attempting to cross over.