Fruitful visit

Bangladesh constitutes a key cog in the scheme of engaging our neighbours especially in the light of a new Act East policy.

Probably the single biggest bugbear that has afflicted India’s foreign policy for the past several decades has been the troubled, and quite often prickly, relations it has had with its immediate neighbouring countries in South Asia. While it is understandable in the case of Pakistan, it is difficult to comprehend with the rest.

A common refrain one heard in seminars and other meetings is that, besides being arrogant and insensitive, India behaves like a typical big brother. More than anything, the condescending attitude of the Indian policy makers has been a major stumbling block for such a poor state of affairs.

Things, however, may be beginning to change under the Narendra Modi government. To his credit, in an unprecedented move, he became the first prime minister to invite heads of governments of all South Asian neighbours for his oath ceremony. He subsequently followed it up by visiting most of the countries, except Pakistan, and striking mutually beneficial deals. He understood that, to deliver promises he made during the elections to get the economy back on high growth track, a peaceful neighbourhood is a prerequisite.

Bangladesh constitutes a key cog in the above scheme of engaging the neighbours especially in the light of a new Act East policy that he propounded and due to rapidly increasing the salience of the Bay of Bengal region.     Among some 22-odd agreements that were signed during the recent Modi visit to Dhaka, the most important is the landmark agreement on land border, which had been hanging fire since 1974 for one reason or another.

Under this agreement, India will transfer 111 enclaves in exchange for 51 by Bangladesh. With that, not only over 4,000 km of land border problem is settled but also the misery of some 50,000 stateless people would also come to an end.

Equally vital is an accord that will allow Indian cargo ships to use the Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh, which otherwise have to take the circuitous route of going all the way to Singapore and back, which will drastically cut down costs and the travel time.

The resolution of maritime boundary issues last year has also opened up huge opportunities as these two have agreed to “work closely on the development of ocean-based Blue Economy and Maritime Cooperation in the Bay of Bengal.”
The removal of border irritant has paved the way to start two bus services: Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati.

These will connect West Bengal to the three North Eastern states of India via Bangladesh thereby reducing the distance between Tripura to West Bengal by about 560 km. Plans are also afoot to enlarge the Dhaka-Kolkata ‘Maitri’ passenger train service that was started in 2008. With that, probably the only major pending issue would be the water sharing pact involving numerous rivers, especially that of Teesta.

The announcement of US$ 2 billion aid by Modi and the setting up of a special economic zone of 500 acres for Indian companies along the India-Bangladesh border by Sheikh Hasina are other major highlights. To her credit, Hasina has also come down heavily on anti-Indian insurgent groups who used to operate from Bangladesh besides drastically curbing the activities of radical Islamic groups.

Whereas these steps go a long way in cementing bilateral relations and build badly needed confidence, New Delhi should look to engaging Dhaka in an expansive and comprehensive manner. As the East Asian experience shows, one best way is to build strong economic bonds. The current trade that is heavily skewed in favour of India is unsustainable – Indian exports in 2014-15 stood at $6.4 bn while imports were a meagre $0.6 bn with Bangladesh incurring a massive trade deficit of $5.8 bn.

Robust economic links
Obviously, many in Bangladesh feel that their products are not able to take advantage of massive Indian market due to imposition of non-tariff barriers. One way to mitigate this problem is to increase Indian investments there. The big upside of robust economic links is that they will help build an enduring bilateral relationship and make it less susceptible to political vicissitudes.

A great opportunity also beckons India to engage Bangladesh through several sub-regional multilateral frameworks such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM).

Both have been around for more than a decade and half and both have huge potential to contribute to regional prosperity but for some inexplicable reasons not much progress has taken place. If the proposed plans, such as BIMSTEC framework agreement on free trade is realised, it would strengthen economic and security cooperation among the member states, which also includes Thailand and Myanmar.

Similarly, after a long hiatus, India is showing interest in the BCIM initiative. A study group has been set up to work out details on building the BCIM Economic Corridor that connects Kolkata with Kunming via Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh and Mandalay in Myanmar.

If cooperation among these two mechanisms is promoted in earnest, the biggest beneficiaries will be India’s Northeastern states besides West Bengal, which have been nursing a grouse that they have hardly benefited from India’s robust Look East policy.
Moreover, Bangladesh too has its own Look East policy of aligning more closely with East Asia.

If India took active interest in promoting these sub-regional cooperative plans, it would help Bangladesh to make its policy of Look East a success.

(The writer is Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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