Amid perennial neighbourhood issues with Pakistan and the recent estrangement with Nepal which India laboured to bridge, Indo-Bangladesh relations stand out as an example of good neighbourly ties despite Chinese efforts to wrench and lure Dhaka away from New Delhi.
Indeed, Prime Minister Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina have struck a fine rapport and consequently, the stakes for India are high as Bangladesh goes to polls later this year. While the re-election of Hasina would cement those ties, a vote for her arch-rival Begum Khaleda who is now under detention on corruption charges could alter the picture overnight and leave the door ajar for sinister Pakistani groups to intensify subversive operations at our doorstep.
Indo-Bangla positives found reiteration when the two leaders met at the convocation of the Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan on Friday along with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee whose concurrence is essential for any plan to share the waters of Teesta river. India’s help to Bangladesh in launching the country’s first satellite Bangabandhu 1 also came up for laudatory mention.
Modi referred in his Shantiniketan speech to the “golden chapter” in Indo-Bangla relations. For him too in the Indian general elections next year, good ties with neighbours would be an issue that would work to his benefit at least in Bangladesh’s case.
A settlement on sharing Teesta waters which originates in the Himalayas and flows through Sikkim and West Bengal to merge with the Brahmaputra in Assam and (Jamuna in Bangladesh), is perhaps the only major bone of contention between the two neighbours.
For West Bengal, the Teesta is important since it is the lifeline of half-a-dozen districts. Bangladesh has sought an “equitable” distribution of Teesta waters from India, on the lines of the Ganga Water Treaty of 1996, but to no avail.
Mamata Banerjee has been opposing the sharing of Teesta waters on the ground that West Bengal would fall short of its requirements and such a line strikes a sensitive chord with the people of her state.
Whether the meeting with Sheikh Hasina in Shantiniketan would help in softening her stand remains to be seen. That this visit of Hasina brought Mamata to interact with Modi is also significant because the two are at dagger’s drawn in the electoral battles.
Sheikh Hasina has sought India’s help also in resolving the Rohingya issue with Myanmar with an estimated 11 lakh Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. That these refugees put a heavy strain on its economy and need to be taken back to their original country is beyond question. India can ill afford not to heed Hasina’s SOS to use its good offices with Myanmar to resolve the refugee crisis.
If Bangladesh succeeds in making tangible headway on both the issue of Teesta waters sharing and on Rohingya refugees being taken back by Myanmar, it would be a major boost in Sheikh Hasina’s re-election efforts and that would be a big gain for India.
India recognises that Bangladesh’s support is critical to India’s Act East policy. Be it the forum Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Bangladesh’s support will help India gain a toehold to counter Chinese influence in the region.
Maritime connectivity link is another area in which India and Bangladesh can work together. There, indeed, are huge opportunities for mutual cooperation and if the same tempo is maintained as it is now, there could be major gains for the two countries in coming days.
China has been wooing Bangladesh to take advantage of the development of Gwadar port in Pakistan but Dhaka has resisted any overtures that are inimical to Indian interests.
One shudders to think what the consequences for India would be if Hasina does not remain at the helm in Bangladesh. It is a measure of the fragility of India’s foreign policy initiative that it is dependent on one person to take forward the Indo-Bangla juggernaut.