Updated: March 29, 2021 8:54:26 am
On May 26, 2014, when Narendra Modi took oath as the country’s 14th prime minister, a cursory glance at the guest list could have given away his foreign policy ambitions. Besides various heads of states, political parties and groups, the list included leaders from the SAARC countries, making it pretty clear that the Modi government’s main foreign policy focus is “neighbourhood first”.
PM Modi has constantly reached out to India’s neighbours such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal to join in India’s journey towards economic empowerment whether with respect to generating electricity or constructing a port or inking a boundary pact. The core themes behind his push towards India having cordial relations with its neighbours are the issues of regional peace, security and development. PM Modi’s message to India’s neighbours is clear: India is committed to promoting regional peace and economic integration of the region.
While Pakistan and China failed to understand the noble intentions of this neighbourhood outreach, the other neighbours have been echoing Modi’s vision of making SAARC a strong and cohesive regional block. The PM’s deftness in dealing with the country’s neighbours has surprised top foreign policy experts.
Another guiding theme behind the Narendra Modi government’s push towards the “neighbourhood first” policy is that India wants to come across to its neighbours as a country that is growing both economically and strategically and is ready to share the fruits of its growth with its neighbours because it knows that a prosperous neighbourhood means a prosperous region. This, in turn, will check the growth of inequality and poverty in the Asian region.
PM Modi’s first foreign visit after the COVID-19 pandemic to Bangladesh is, therefore, a reiteration of his government’s focus on the neighbourhood. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave the leaders of the subcontinent a worldview based on the principle of equitable distribution of wealth and resources as well as development at the grassroots. This theme is close to Modi’s heart as well.
The neighbours came together to ink the historic Land Boundary Agreement in 2015. Rahman dreamed of a united Bay of Bengal, which more than four decades after his martyrdom has been made possible by his daughter, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As Bangladesh celebrates two momentous events — 50 years of its independence, and the centenary of Bangabandhu — PM Modi’s visit to Dhaka, that concluded last week, assumes great significance. The visit is not just an acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by the people in both countries to gain freedom, but also a commitment to advance the visionary worldview of Bangabandhu. It is an endeavour to realise his dreams for the subcontinent.
Analysing the relationship between the two countries in the light of the boundary accord and the spirit of cooperation and collaboration clearly highlights that India’s attitude towards Bangladesh does not stop at respect and friendship for its eastern neighbour, but also touches on other crucial aspects such as better connectivity, energy, cross-border trade, health and education. Bangladesh was among the first countries to receive Indian COVID-19 vaccines under the “Vaccine Maitri” mission.
Connectivity is the core principle of PM Modi’s outreach to Bangladesh. It will energise people-to-people contact. India restored four out of the six pre-1965 cross-border rail links with Bangladesh and the remaining two shall be completed soon. The development of three other rail links is also on the anvil.
The two countries are planning to double air connectivity to 120 flights a week, which has, unfortunately, been delayed due to the complications arising out of the pandemic. India and Bangladesh are also working on shared waterways for promoting trade and transport, which has seen India assisting in the dredging and deepening of over 450 km of riverways in Bangladesh.
The countries are also cooperating in the power and energy sectors. India is focusing on enhancing investments and creating capacity as well as infrastructure for strengthening sub-regional cooperation in power and energy connectivity. Such an effort will also help in optimum utilisation of resources in the two nations and boost trade and travel. The agreements in the oil and gas sector, road transport, medical and education, port development, space programme, artificial intelligence, civil nuclear cooperation are going to add new dimensions to the Indo-Bangla ties.
PM Modi’s efforts are focused on encouraging and facilitating travel between the neighbours which will not only boost business and commerce, but will also have a spillover effect on education, medical treatment and tourism. The active collaboration and cooperation between India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan under the BBIN Group is yet another initiative of PM Modi in boosting regional cooperation. Cross-border connectivity and economic linkages will play a crucial role as the world, along with India and Bangladesh, comes together to chart out a roadmap to deal with the death and devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 29, 2021 under the title ‘Bridge to Dhaka’. The writer is a BJP Rajya Sabha MP and head of the party’s media cell