Updated: March 29, 2021 7:22:56 am
The March 26-27 visit to Dhaka by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his first trip abroad since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, has conveyed that India attaches great importance to the relationship with its eastern neighbour. Bangladesh is the region’s fastest growing economy, with social indicators that other countries, including India, can learn from, and a vital link without which Delhi cannot realise the full potential of either the economic or strategic underpinnings of its Look East policy. India was instrumental in the birth of Bangladesh, but ties between the two countries, though at their historic best over the last 12 years under Sheikh Hasina, remain complicated. Most recently, the ruling BJP regime’s political rhetoric at home, including its use of the “illegal immigrant” trope, and unsavoury references to Bangladesh in the public conversation on the Citizenship Amendment Act, had spread frost on the ties and threatened to strengthen the hands of Islamist groups opposed to PM Hasina, who see her as too close to Delhi. PM Modi’s visit, to participate in the 50th anniversary commemoration of Bangladesh’s independence day and the 100th birth anniversary celebrations of Mujibur Rehman, the father of Bangladesh, coincides with the West Bengal elections, and could not escape a whiff of the sulphurous poll campaign. That 10 people were killed in protests in Bangladesh against the visit, led by an extremist Islamist group called Hefazat-e-Islam, is shocking. The responsibility for not allowing this to negate the achievements of the visit lies in both capitals.
A joint statement has listed several outcomes from the visit, from connectivity and “people-oriented” border management to anti-COVID-19 vaccines and nuclear energy. But for Bangladesh, the outcome that matters most remains elusive — the finalisation of the agreement to share the waters of the Teesta river, a draft of which was drawn up by both governments in 2011. India’s inability to deliver on this promise is a fallout of the differences between the Centre and West Bengal on the issue. Irrespective of the outcome of the elections in that state, however, it is necessary that Delhi does whatever it takes towards arriving at a pact that can be a win-win for both sides. This will convey to Bangladesh, where India is vying with China for influence, that Delhi can take difficult decisions to help out a neighbour.
PM Modi drew a vision of a shared future for India and Bangladesh through the “power of democracy”, and utilisation of opportunities of trade, commerce and connectivity to “progress together” and stay united against the challenge posed by terrorism. There were references to “fraternal ties” based on equality, trust and understanding that “transcend a strategic partnership”. But while all countries desire to be recognised as equal, they also want bigger countries to take more responsibility for protecting this equality. This is probably what PM Hasina meant when she said that, as the biggest country in South Asia, India must “play a pioneering role”. Delhi must hold up its end of the pact with Dhaka.