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Arriving in Dhaka on Wednesday, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has a two-fold task. One is to revive the momentum in bilateral relations lost during the final years of the UPA government and the other is to explore the contours of a comprehensive strategic partnership with Bangladesh that could become the touchstone for the new government’s quest to transform relations with neighbours.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi got off to a great start by inviting all the leaders of the subcontinent to join his swearing-in ceremony last month. That all invitees, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, showed up underlined the fact that our neighbours have been eagerly waiting for a productive partner in Delhi. If Modi chose Bhutan as his first foreign destination, Swaraj is now packing her bags for Dhaka.
In Bangladesh, as elsewhere in the world, expectations are high that Modi will be a more credible interlocutor than his predecessor. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh had the right convictions on what India ought to do with its neighbours, but he did not have the unstinting support of his own party. Nor did Manmohan Singh mobilise public opinion behind his strategic regional initiatives.
Nowhere was the gap between diplomatic ambition and political weakness more evident than in the UPA’s engagement with Bangladesh. In 2010, Manmohan Singh and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launched a bold effort to reinvent Indo-Bangla relations. Dhaka addressed India’s concerns on cross-border terrorism by extending unprecedented security cooperation. Delhi removed most tariff barriers on Bangladeshi exports to India.
Together they negotiated an interim framework to share the Teesta and resolve the long-standing land boundary dispute. On what should have been a day of celebration in Dhaka in September 2011, the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, was a no-show.
Manmohan Singh was reluctant to sign the Teesta waters accord in the face of her opposition. Although he signed the Land Boundary Agreement, he found it hard to push for its ratification in Parliament.
The UPA government badly let down Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League, and reinforced the traditional scepticism in Dhaka that Delhi is not a reliable partner. Optimists in Dhaka believe that the Modi government is capable of finishing what Manmohan Singh started.
What Swaraj’s interlocutors in Dhaka would want to know is whether the Modi government is ready to turn its new political strength at home into practical policies towards Bangladesh. Dhaka is not unaware of the fact that sections of the BJP had opposed the agreements with Bangladesh. It is also concerned about some of the tough rhetoric from Modi during the election campaign about cracking down on illegal immigration.
Modi and Swaraj can address the concerns in Dhaka and of the Indian states bordering Bangladesh only by demonstrating that a strong strategic continued…