Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent comparison of the boundary settlement with Bangladesh to the fall of the Berlin wall a quarter century ago might be surprising for many. The PM, who spent much political capital to get Parliament to approve the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Dhaka, was reacting to the insufficient public appreciation of the unfolding transformation in India’s relations with Bangladesh.
The widespread image of South Asia as the least integrated region in the world, one that is mired in perpetual conflict, comes from viewing the region through the prism of India’s troubled relations with Pakistan and Delhi’s inability to build on the possibilities for stronger partnerships with other neighbours, especially Bangladesh. As a result, pessimism about the subcontinent’s future has been persistent.
If the problems with both Pakistan and Bangladesh are rooted in the tragedy of Partition, India’s challenges in the northwest shaped the popular, academic and policy debates on South Asian politics. Modi is set to change this. His visit to Dhaka this weekend will decisively correct the long-standing bias in Delhi’s foreign policy framework: overestimating the potential for normalisation of relations with Pakistan and underestimating the huge opportunities that Bangladesh has long presented.
The bias was evident in India’s regional policy during the UPA decade. Then PM Manmohan Singh persisted with the Pakistan peace process despite repeated setbacks but could not build on the historic breakthrough in relations with Bangladesh that emerged from intensive negotiations between Delhi and Dhaka during 2009-11. Modi appears to be doing the opposite. He has put diplomacy with Pakistan on the back burner and brought Bangladesh to the front. For the PM, this is not a question of choosing between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Contrary to media speculation, Modi’s outreach to Dhaka and the smaller neighbours is not an effort to “isolate” Pakistan. Pakistan is too big and important in global and regional geopolitics to be isolated. Modi has recognised the current political limits on reworking relations with Pakistan and the expansive opportunities with Bangladesh that have been knocking at India’s door. Above all, it is about common sense — move forward where you can and avoid difficult projects that offer few political returns on the diplomatic investment.
The PM reversed the BJP’s position in the last years of the UPA, that the LBA was “unconstitutional”. Modi gets full credit for directly addressing the reservations against the LBA in the BJP, especially in the Assam and West Bengal units, and building a national political consensus in favour of the boundary settlement. He was also quick to accept the international award last year to resolve the maritime territorial dispute with Bangladesh. The traditional instinct in Delhi would have been to quibble over minor issues and completely miss the big picture about the maritime challenges and opportunities in the Bay of Bengal. By resolving the land and maritime boundary issues with Bangladesh, Modi has demonstrated the political will and strategic imagination to clean up the nearly seven-decade-old territorial mess left by Partition in the east. With that, the PM has liberated the diplomatic energies of Delhi and Dhaka to launch a productive era of South Asian regional cooperation.
But Modi has much work to do in Dhaka. For India and Bangladesh continue to trip over the detritus of Partition. The PM must now take some big steps to reverse the many negative economic consequences of Partition. It was not inevitable that political partition of the subcontinent had to be followed by economic partition. India’s inward economic orientation after Independence resulted in the break-up of the subcontinent’s two most dynamic and integrated spaces — Punjab and Bengal. Socialist India’s conscious rejection of regional trade and interdependence, which was emulated in Pakistan and Bangladesh, probably did more damage than the creation of new political sovereignties and drawing of new boundaries. The emphasis on self-reliance and import substitution had an equally perverse effect. It disconnected and severed the transport corridors that the British Raj built across the eastern subcontinent. Crossroads in the heart of Punjab and Bengal became dead ends.
Although the era of liberalisation and globalisation demanded that India and Bangladesh find ways to quickly reconnect the two economies for mutual benefit, progress has been rather slow. To be sure, the UPA government has talked the talk on regional economic integration. It had also explicitly recognised the strategic virtue of promoting shared regional prosperity. But walking the talk has not been easy. Delhi had fallen short in removing non-tariff barriers, addressing the growing trade imbalance, modernising connectivity, developing transborder rail and road connectivity and offering substantive transit rights across its territory — for example, between Bangladesh on the one hand and Bhutan and Nepal on the other.
In pushing through the LBA, Modi has demonstrated his seriousness about putting neighbours first in India’s foreign policy priorities. If he unveils a forward-looking economic agenda in Dhaka this weekend, the PM can also reinforce his ambition to make India a leading power in the region and beyond. India has long claimed primacy in the subcontinent. But its regional economic and foreign policies continually undermined that claim. Modi is now well poised to show that India is on a very different course — of building mutually beneficial partnerships with the smaller neighbours in the promotion of regional peace and prosperity.
Modi’s success in transcending the inherited boundary dispute with Bangladesh by mobilising a massive domestic consensus is bound to improve his government’s credibility in the negotiations with China and Pakistan on territorial issues. By unveiling an expansive action plan in Dhaka for economic integration and transborder connectivity, Modi can help Delhi end the widespread negative narrative on the subcontinent’s prospects and extend the positive dynamic in the east to the north and the west.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’