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 partnership will produce win-win outcomes for everyone in the eastern subcontinent. To get there, Delhi and Dhaka must recognise that geography has inseparably interlinked their destinies. For Bangladesh, India is virtually the only neighbour with a border of nearly 4,000 kilometres. (Myanmar is the only other country that shares a border, about 270 km long, with Bangladesh). No wonder Dhaka feels “India-locked”. For India’s northeastern states, the easiest access to either the Indian mainland or the Bay of Bengal is through Bangladesh.
Managing this geographic interdependence has long been the principal strategic challenge for Delhi and Dhaka. It is only recently that both sides have recognised that they need the other to make progress on a whole range of issues, from internal security to water resource management and economic modernisation.
This geographic imperative should help Swaraj develop a positive agenda for Modi’s visit to Dhaka in the near future and help win political support for it in India. In Dhaka, she must begin a conversation on the integrated management of the Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins. If Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India can imagine such an approach, their leverage to negotiate with China on the upstream will improve considerably.
Delhi and Dhaka can deepen bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism and extremism in both the countries. The finalisation of the land boundary will not only clean up the territorial mess left by the partition of the subcontinent in the east, but also help improve the internal security of both countries. If Swaraj has the time to visit the Benapole-Petrapole border, through which nearly half of the booming bilateral trade moves, she will understand how pitiful the trade infrastructure is on the Indian side. If Delhi must focus on trade facilitation, Dhaka must begin to see itself as the transit hub between different parts of India.
If Dhaka must recognise the benefits of offering overland transit to India, Delhi must contribute to the modernisation of roads, railways and waterways within Bangladesh and coastal shipping in the Bay of Bengal. During her visit to Dhaka, Swaraj must explore the possibilities of a signature Indian investment in a transformative infrastructure project in Bangladesh, say, a second bridge over the Padma.
If economic integration is now a shared goal for Delhi and Dhaka, they must make it easier for businessmen and tourists to travel across the border. On the important question of illegal migration, the two sides must learn to manage the natural labour mobility in the subcontinent through “work permits”, rather than trying to prevent it unilaterally or denying its existence.
Above all, Swaraj should recognise that Delhi’s obsession with Pakistan makes it blind to the huge possibilities with Bangladesh. If Pakistan is a problem that India must manage, Bangladesh offers a rare strategic opportunity to transform the geopolitics of the subcontinent. A comprehensive partnership with Dhaka might be the key that will eventually open the door to a productive engagement with Pakistan.
The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’