Speaking at the inauguration of the Bangladesh Bhawan at Santiniketan last Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked of the current “golden era” in the relations between Delhi and Dhaka. Since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s return to power nearly a decade ago in January 2009, the transformation in bilateral relations has exceeded all expectations. Thanks to the efforts of Modi and his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, the two countries have resolved their land and maritime boundary disputes, expanded cooperation in combating terrorism, liberalised bilateral trade, enhanced connectivity, and embarked on collaborations with other neighbours like Bhutan. The presence of Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on the occasion at Santiniketan, helped highlight the positive evolution of India’s eastern neighbourhood. But there is no question that the best in the east is yet to be.
The three leaders were too polite to express the differences in public. Hasina obliquely referred to one of them — India’s inability to sign the Teesta Waters Agreement with Bangladesh negotiated when Prime Minister Singh visited Dhaka in September 2011. Hours before he was to sign the agreement, Banerjee had pulled the plug on the pact, although officials of her government were fully involved in the negotiations and had secured the interests of Kolkata. If Banerjee chose to play politics, Manmohan Singh and Modi could not persuade her to take a reasonable approach that would have helped lift the bilateral relationship to a much higher level. In Dhaka, no issue triggers more emotion than the sharing of waters with India. The Teesta settlement would have prepared the ground for talks on comprehensive basin-wide cooperation on the effective utilisation of more than 50 common rivers between the two nations.
Banerjee, of course, is not the only one putting narrow self-interest above the national imperative. The BJP’s politics on cow protection has upturned the synergy between excess cattle in northern India and beef consumption in East Bengal and complicated border management. Meanwhile the question of migration — legal and illegal, past and current — casts a dark shadow over the bilateral relationship. The threat of the BJP-led government in Assam to push illegal immigrants into Bangladesh is a ticking time bomb. Meanwhile, the growing insecurities of Muslims in India are generating much anxiety in Bangladesh and diminishing goodwill for the Modi government in Dhaka. The last decade has triggered the hope that it is indeed possible to overcome the multiple tragedies arising from the partition of the Subcontinent in the east. But it has also unfortunately demonstrated that India’s domestic politics continues to prevent the full realisation of the new possibilities in the east.