Bangladesh : Leveraging its Locational Advantage
Dr Sreeradha Datta

India and Bangladesh recently made history. After years of discussion and negotiations the first land and air transshipment between them finally took place towards the end of 2018. The first bonded container 4.41 tonne cargo from Bangladesh moved through the Benapole land border into India through the Petrapole border to head towards Kolkata airport for air freight to Europe. This first instance of GPS-enabled trucks moving across the border, allowing officials from both India and Bangladesh to monitor progress in real time is going to change the manner of bilateral and regional trade as well. This form of cargo movement was also possible due to the signing of the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) agreement in 2016, that seeks to enable seamless trade movement among the four neighbours. Although BBIN has only had a trial run and is yet to be fully functional, the opportunities for all to reorganize their trade and transport systems are immense. Surely, the deepening bilateral relations leading to a regional cooperative framework have not been isolated developments.

The bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh is likely to cross the US$ 10 billion mark shortly as per the latest trade statistics; a substantial jump from the US$ 1 billion it enjoyed nearly two decades ago in 2001. The transformational bilateral relations began with the signing of the 2010 framework of cooperation. Sheikh Hasina lead Awami League to a stupendous majority in the 9th Jatiya Sangsad (JS, Parliament) during the 2008 elections and in clean, prompt actions, squarely addressed India’s security concerns. The convergence of interest led to a panorama of cooperation covering the spectrum of interactions involving trade and commerce, and cultural and social activities - signaling a new geostrategic environment in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Not unexpectedly, domestic stability in the neighbourhood has always been a core interest for India. Thus when the Awami League coalition came to power in 2008 post an interregnum of two years that saw the military rule through the facade of the caretaker government, there was a sense of relief both inside Bangladesh and on the outside as well. The Bangladeshis had voted for change, moving away from the divisive politics they had remained embroiled in and putting their support behind a secular leader. More importantly, Sheikh Hasina had initiated the war crime trials against the collaborators- a brave move that appealed to one and all, including the young voters. Cited by many as one of the core reasons behind Hasina’s proving most political pundits wrong and upsetting the anti-incumbency trend in Bangladesh to come back for a third consecutive term.

In a 300-member Parliament the final tally of 288 seats for the Awami League coalition looks unconvincing. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led opposition coalition performed disastrously, managing to win only seven seats with the other three seats acquired by independent candidates. Undoubtedly, the lack of a level playing field, allegations of rigging, and Hasina’s evident overreach will continue to pose questions for the credibility of these elections. This, however, does not take away the Awami League led government’s contribution in leading Bangladesh into being the fastest growing nation in Asia and in the fourth place globally. The economic growth, the infrastructure development, and its overall improvement in human development indicators have together successfully lifted large masses from the depth of their poverty and has been significant achievements in themselves severally. The rapid improvement in the energy and transport sector has led to its readymade garments sector to grow, increasing its share to 11 percent of the GDP - through its earning of over US$ 38 billion in the last year.

Hasina’s role, however, has not been confined to only the domestic arena; she has made significant foreign policy overtures too. While Indo-Bangladeshi ties have been strengthened manifold, she has simultaneously balanced the engagement with China. For India, the Bangladesh parliamentary election verdict is being perceived on the larger tapestry woven out of multiple threads – political, strategic, economic, and cultural – spanning the entire gamut of the experiences of people with immense shared resources and heritage, and in particular, within the evolution of the relationship between them.

A visit by a Chinese premier, in 2016 after a gap of thirty years was a signaling of Bangladesh’s growing importance. Though President Xi Jinping’s stopover visit to Dhaka, enroute to the BRICS Summit in Goa, was not more than 24 hours, that was no reflection of its payoff. The signing of 27 agreements and MoUs between the two governments with a projected value of USD 20 billion was the largest financial support ever received by Bangladesh from one source with 13 of these bilateral agreements covering infrastructure, construction, energy, and transportation sectors. In a generous gesture Xi also had waived off USD 24 billion worth of loans for Bangladesh. China’s courting of Bangladesh resulted in Dhaka agreeing to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the latest figures about China’s proposed investment in Bangladesh is said to be around US$ 38 billion.

Interestingly, both India and China have viewed Bangladesh not only through the prism of bilateralism but also amidst the landscape of the growing regional framework. Bangladesh is a key partner - not only as test case for India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy but also in its ‘Act East’ policy which attempts to increase its foothold in its Southeast Asian neighborhood. The bilateral cross-border transport connectivity and economic corridors India has setup with Bangladesh will be woven together into a regional transportation and connectivity network complementing many of its initiative to promote regionalism in the subcontinent, at least on India’s eastern flank. The two sub regional initiatives in the neighbourhood - the BBIN - will introduce seamless cross-border trade and transportation through signing of the Motor Vehicles Agreement, and BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) that has been revived, has a key role for Bangladesh. Transit and trade agreement with Bangladesh not only has given a quicker access to India’s Northeast region but also is enabling it to develop economic corridors and creating linkages - bringing South Asia and Southeast Asia closer. The India-Bangladesh transport corridors spanning rail, road, and waterways has not only enabled deeper connectivity between India’s west Bengal and Northeast states but also will improve the cross border movements for the entire neighborhood. The bilateral transport infrastructure has been implemented in several sectors but the entire plan will take time to construct a web of transport systems that in addition to recreating the past historical links will be enabling new efficient routes in the subcontinent. In another first, India Bangladesh and Japan are collaborating to build a mass rapid transport system in Bangladesh.

Similarly for China, Bangladesh plays a key role in translating the Bangladesh-China-Myanmar corridor into a reality. China’s BRI imprint on the South Asian region will remain incomplete without Bangladesh. Indeed, Bangladesh is strategically poised to leverage its locational cusp with the two Asian powers.

Thus India and China standing firm behind Hasina’s electoral win is not unexpected. While in 2014 the opposition led by BNP refused to participate in the election and gave a walk over to Awami, this time around they have none to blame for their dismal performance. Even if one accepts the allegations of executive overreach, Hasina’s intolerance, and her increasing repressive ways towards any contrarian views, the opposition had really bound themselves into a corner. The new opposition formation, the National Unity Front, launched by the eminent jurist Kamal Hossain was an effort that was too little and too late. This party had little chance against seasoned candidates and was unable to offer itself as a credible leadership alternative. The BNP, which preferred to campaign under the shadows of its banished leader Khaleda Zia, failed to project itself as a trustworthy choice.

While the latest election verdict is questionable, the reality of a leadership crisis in Bangladesh is also evident. Adherence to democratic norms have never been a priority with Bangladeshi leaders and once again Bangladesh’s fragile political climate is evident for all. Under the prevailing circumstances, Sheikh Hasina appears the only stable choice. For now, the Sheikh Hasina led Awami League government is the best bet for India.

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