At a public meeting in Assam a few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated his government’s intention to pursue the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh. This agreement, developed through close negotiations between Indian and Bangladeshi officials, had been announced in September 2011 during the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka. Sadly, India’s politics got the best of the bill and it has languished ever since. While resolving the border with Bangladesh may seem like a quiet regional development compared with the turmoil in Afghanistan or competition with China, it will in effect deliver a political hat-trick of historic proportions. By resolving this nearly 70-year-old border dispute, India will be able to advance its trade and security ties with Bangladesh. Doing so will position India and its Northeast as a gateway to Southeast Asia. Importantly, it would demonstrate that Modi’s government can overcome even the highest political hurdle and restore global confidence in India.
The border itself, as an article in The Economist noted three years ago, is the “land that maps forgot”. Literal islands of extraterritoriality dot the most complex parts of this border, with around 200 of these patches of land known as “enclaves” dating back to Partition in 1947. It is hard to administer and unfairly deprives citizens of both countries of access to basic services like electricity, transportation and education. For the estimated 50,000 citizens living in these enclaves, regularisation of the territory to create contiguous land will finally allow them lives unimpeded by the anomaly of being engulfed by another country. That will in and of itself deliver humanitarian gains.
Apart from this obvious benefit, resolving this complicated border will advance India’s economic relations with Bangladesh, important for opening up trade and exchange between India’s $2 trillion economy and Bangladesh’s smaller but consistently fast-growing economy. (Bangladesh is one of J.P. Morgan’s “Frontier 5” markets, as well as a Goldman Sachs “Next 11”.) The LBA is but one of several initiatives central to better economic integration: also under discussion or already in the implementation stage are agreements on trade and commerce, including border markets, the sharing of the waters of the Teesta and other rivers, a rail link between Agartala and Akhaura, and trans-shipment of goods across Bangladesh to India’s Northeast.
That’s the trade side. Overcoming the long-pending border dispute will reinforce the strategic interests of New Delhi and Dhaka in partnering more closely on cross-border security challenges, including counter-terrorism, human trafficking and, of course, illegal migration. There has already been a sea-change in Indo-Bangladesh security cooperation with the Awami League government in Dhaka, especially on counter-terrorism, and resolving the border should build further trust between the two countries. Indeed, Modi has presented his interest in the LBA as a step towards better management of illegal migration.
Taken together, stronger economic linkages supported by mutual security cooperation will — as many have noted — better position India and its northeastern states more consequentially as a gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond. The geopolitical possibilities here are substantial. In these pages, C. Raja Mohan used the word “liberate” to describe the agreement’s impact on Indian interests. An India better linked to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Southeast Asia will more easily develop its trade relationships while also being able to expand its partnerships more broadly across Asia. The strategy fits perfectly with Modi’s approach to foreign policy in his first six months — doubling down on the region and emphasising the benefits of economic ties.
The third accomplishment the LBA would deliver is one of trust and confidence in the new Indian government’s capacity. With it, Modi has signalled his willingness to rise above partisanship — no one has forgotten that his own party opposed the LBA when in opposition — for India’s national interests. Supported by multi-party leadership in the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, which has endorsed the bill rather than oppose it for partisan spite, the political prospects for this agreement look brighter than ever. Because the LBA will require amending the Indian Constitution, necessitating a two-thirds vote in Parliament, managing its passage will not be easy. Over the last five years, international confidence in the Indian government’s capacity to deliver has been dented by one initiative after another falling into a political morass. But if the LBA can clear the highest hurdle of a two-thirds vote, India’s political leaders will show that they can come together and deliver on matters central to India’s security and prosperity.
A stronger relationship with Bangladesh, supporting India’s commercial connectivity across Southeast Asia, will open up trade and economic engagement not just with Bangladesh but beyond. Deepening security cooperation with Bangladesh will provide greater regional ballast along a critical front that has had unique vulnerabilities in the past, better positioning India to “Act East” more robustly. That’s something successive US governments have vocally endorsed. By demonstrating that the Indian government is back in business and is able to make the machinery of politics work, the Modi government will show its ability to take India forward. From this vantage point, the LBA represents a policy hat-trick that deserves to pass.
Those following South Asia here in Washington will be watching its fate closely.
The writer is senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations, US