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Great expectations in Dhaka: Modi has an opportunity to reboot India-Bangladesh relations

The Times of India (India)
Syed Munir Khasru
June 05, 2015


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting Dhaka from June 6-7 to discuss the ‘entire gamut’ of bilateral issues. The Modi government has shown decisiveness in passing the Land Boundary Agreement that was in limbo for more than four decades. While the Indira Gandhi government made the deal, Congress failed to ratify it in Parliament, even though the party enjoyed absolute majority in the 7th and 8th Lok Sabha in the 1980s. Modi has shown the will to translate his popular mandate into the required decisiveness.

Expectations were mounting that Modi’s visit would resolve the biggest sticky issue in Indo-Bangla relations — the Teesta Pact, as the Gazaldoba Barrage in upper riparian India adversely affects around 9 million people in Bangladesh. The thorny hurdle remains just what it was in 2011 — getting Mamata Banerjee’s support. The Modi government has been marshalling its powers to propitiate Mamata into acquiescing to a Teesta deal, and unlike 2011 this time Mamata is in the prime minister’s entourage.

Ongoing consultation between the Union and West Bengal governments hinges on Mamata’s concerns about getting water from further upstream Sikkim, which is pursuing a massive hydroelectric project creating a number of hydraulic dams. The need of the hour is a combination of decisiveness and delicate balancing of interests to resolve the complex water sharing issue.

Border killing of Bangladeshis by the Indian BSF is a continued concern. The number of fatalities may have slackened but they never stopped. The US-Mexico border, the Mediterranean that separates West Asia and North Africa from Europe, and recently the South to Southeast Asia sea route are key migration and trafficking frontiers faced with the challenge of massive flows of human beings fleeing from poverty, persecution and conflict — a problem of global proportions.

A civilised and humane response involves bringing on board key actors from all sides and ensuring an efficient and coordinated response. As India’s ‘most important neighbour’ — as termed by India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval — that is ‘fully responsive’ to the security sensitivities of India, Bangladesh deserves a definitive end to the border killings. Border skirmishes and an antediluvian shoot-to-kill policy are inconsistent with India’s global image of non-violence a la Gandhi and a pluralist democratic nation.

India enjoys with Bangladesh a trade surplus of $5.5 billion. More significantly, Bangladesh’s exports to India fell by 8.2% from 2012-13 to 2013-14, while India’s export rose 4.7%. This trade is estimated to rise to $10 billion by 2018 if non-tariff barriers like technical standards, classification issues and infrastructure bottlenecks are removed, a process that needs to be steered to completion.

Indian FDI to Bangladesh in 2014 was $68 million, up from $45 million in 2013. It remains lower than FDI from UK, Japan and even Pakistan. In the outward FDI map of India, while Western and Middle Eastern countries figure prominently, South Asian neighbours are hard to be found. Materialisation of the two special economic zones in Bangladesh for Indian investment can significantly improve bilateral investment. Tata Group called off its $3 billion investment proposal in 2007 after three years of waiting due to the indecisiveness of the Bangladesh government. This exit sent a negative signal about the investment climate of Bangladesh and underscores the need for stronger investment facilitation on Bangladesh’s part.

On connectivity, Modi is expected to inaugurate a bus service linking Dhaka with Meghalaya and Assam, while Bangladesh has approved a five year extension of a water transit protocol. India is pushing for a deep sea port, a strategic decision that might take a little time. The proposed motor vehicles agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal might be a first step for the four countries to get onto an Asean-style fast-paced cooperation mode rather than the ponderous and reversible cooperation style of Saarc.

On energy, Bangladesh has been importing 500 MW from India and transmission lines are set up to import an additional 600 MW by 2017. The Indo-Bangla joint construction of Rampal power plant is going forward, while the Adani group’s plans to install a 1,600 MW coal power plant and Reliance’s plan to set up an LNG-fuelled 3,000 MW power plant signal growing private sector involvement.

Modi’s visit is an occasion to strengthen genuine bipartisanship in Indo-Bangla relations. Bangladesh will honour BJP maestro Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who shored up bipartisan support for Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.

The main opposition party of Bangladesh BNP has also voiced willingness to back Indo-Bangla ties. The agenda is packed, stakes are high and tailwinds are strong. As he flies to Dhaka, Modi needs to notch up his boldness as well as to bring closure to the protracted tempo and erratic flip-flops of Indo-Bangla relations.

When Modi was declared the Asian of the Year 2014 by the Straits Times, Singapore, this writer wrote in that newspaper, “With global leadership comes global responsibility … Time and tide are on your side. What kind of ride you will make out of it, we Asians optimistically await to see.” Needless to say, Modi’s journey starts with the neighbourhood and the bigger neighbour has the larger share of responsibility.

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