By Syed Badrul Ahsan
April 06, 2017
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s forthcoming visit to India is being observed keenly here in Dhaka. There is little question that in the three years since Narendra Modi took charge as Indian Prime Minister, the degree of cooperation which has generally characterised Dhaka-Delhi ties has gone up by a good number of notches, with the two countries seeing eye to eye on a number of issues affecting them as well as the South Asian region. As an instance, both India and Bangladesh have adopted a common stance on tackling terrorism through not only cracking down on the purveyors of terror but also keeping at arm’s length, and in fact condemning, nations regarded as sponsors of terrorism in the region.
A Recent Trajectory
In recent times, cooperation between Dhaka and Delhi has been enhanced in other areas, particularly with respect to Bangladesh’s measures toward setting up a power plant in the Sundarbans. At the same time, Bangladesh has witnessed a rather impressive degree of Indian investment in other areas where its economic development is concerned. In terms of diplomacy in the South Asian region, both countries have had identical views on how organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should be going forward in promoting cooperation among its member nations. It may be recalled that India and Bangladesh, for different reasons, pulled out of the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad last year.
The upcoming visit of the Bangladesh leader to Delhi, on the face of it, would appear to be a courtesy call on the Indian leadership. Yet that would be a rather naïve way of looking at the realities which today underscore India-Bangladesh relations. Sheikh Hasina’s great need at this point of time is to convince her people that with her in charge, Bangladesh’s foreign policy and its operation are on track, and that through such a process, Bangladesh stands the best chance of being part of a time of regional stability in the region. At home, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has already begun hurling the usual epithets at the Awami League government to highlight what it has called genuflection before India where preserving Bangladesh’s interests is the issue. Those charges have of course been roundly dismissed by observers. It has not helped the BNP any bit that since its formation and subsequent exercise of political power in Dhaka, its fundamentally anti-India card has continued to power its attitude to Dhaka-Delhi relations.
The Electoral Timescale
Even so, Sheikh Hasina will need to convince Bangladeshis through this visit that her government is on top of things where ties with India are concerned, given especially the fact that she and her party faces a general election in early 2019. There is little question that in the last few years, the Hasina government has provided stability in such areas as the economy, even though there has been disquiet in other areas, notably in security, as the government has been coming down hard on terrorists. A fresh injection of energy into relations with India can only benefit Bangladesh and of course convince Bangladesh’s people that their future is in good hands, those of Sheikh Hasina.
The extent to which ties between India and Bangladesh can be re-energised is to be observed from the fact that a slew of agreements are expected to be signed by the two countries during the presence of the Bangladesh leader in Delhi. A critical aspect of the trip will certainly be a defence deal that will likely be initialled by the two Prime Ministers. This is an area that is clearly sensitive for the Bangladesh leader since questions are already being raised in Dhaka about the terms of, or even the need for, such a deal. It may be recalled that the 25-year treaty of friendship and cooperation reached by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman in 1972, within months of Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent state, continued to be the subject of criticism in anti-Awami League circles till the deal reached its natural end. Sheikh Hasina will surely be extremely cautious as her government proceeds to a new deal with the Modi government. She comprehends the worries associated with the move and will need to convince Bangladeshis that the deal will be initialled on the basis of sovereign equality and is not a measure that will have India roping Bangladesh into its interpretation of geopolitical realities.
There is, with all this importance attached to Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi, the Indian government’s worry about the increasing levels of cooperation between Bangladesh and China, particularly in the spheres of the economy and defence. Dhaka’s recent procurement of two submarines from Beijing, coupled with Sheikh Hasina’s statement that no country would now dare to attack Bangladesh, can only have raised eyebrows in the corridors of power in Delhi. The Bangladesh Prime Minister has therefore a particular need now to convince the Indian leadership that Dhaka’s links with Beijing are in no way an effort to turn away from its traditional links with Delhi, but are aimed at ensuring for itself a basis of balanced, cooperative relations with the major players in the region. For good measure, the Chinese will be keeping a hawk’s eye on the Hasina-Modi deliberations in Delhi.
The Teesta Factor
And then, of course, there is the matter of the sharing of the Teesta waters, a subject that has continued to be the focus of discussions in Dhaka ever since the possibility of a deal was scuttled in 2011. Bangladeshis by and large continue to hope that Prime Minister Modi will be able to live up to his promise of a treaty being arrived at through his influence. That could again depend on how a meeting of three Bengalis — President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee — goes at Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi.
The Hasina visit should throw up substantive results for both Bangladesh and India. Anything less will be disappointing.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is associate editor, The Asian Age, in Dhaka