India-Bangladesh: Moving beyond the Bilateral
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, VIF

What does it take for a bilateral relation to cross the Rubicon? As recent developments were unfolding, if any two neighbours in South Asia were capable of making the turnaround it was presumed India and Bangladesh could and would. And given the ongoing wide spectrum of bilateral cooperation it would appear Indo-Bangladeshi ties have certainly gathered strength and momentum and seems poised at a good juncture. But a recent visit to Dhaka revealed several anxieties and apprehensions about the future. The political elite and civil society in Bangladesh have always been active and the front face of the bilateral ties. This seems to be missing. Arguably, the governmental relations have been transformational with frequent visits and a constant flow of agreements. But the upbeat mood was perceptibly missing.

The two neighbours have walked a long path since the 1970s. Five decades of journey comprising lending moral and physical support, building bridges and creating a regional gateway has been no mean achievement. But how deep are the bilateral ties? Plenty of doubts remain on both sides. The fear of India taking advantage of Bangladesh without much quid pro quo and Bangladesh moving closer to China are two distinct strands of fear undermining the bilateral cooperation. Outstanding issues between two neighbours is possible and resolvable too but the growing cooperation is not being translated into filling the trust deficit. This has been the bane of the bilateral relations right from the outset. While the present period has been often cited as the best phase between the two neighbours, the suspicion about each other seems to lurk somewhere in the corner. Is this a reflection of the domestic politics? Or is there a deeper reason?

As Bangladesh perceives it today, the Indo-Bangladeshi bilateral cooperation is attributed to chemistry that PM Hasina shares with Indian leaders. For PM Modi, Bangladesh is a critical player in India’s regional outreach. They both showcase each other albeit in different ways. For Bangladesh, India is good bargaining chip especially vis-à-vis China. Similarly for Modi 1.0 and 2.0, many of the neighbourhood polices finds convergence in Bangladesh.

PM Hasina is scheduled to visit India next month, her first, during Modi 2.0. Apart from other outstanding issue, sharing of common water will be on the agenda. Teesta has been on the cards for long, but with West Bengal unwilling to play ball the sharing of Teesta water flows has not led to any resolution. Speculations are rife about India and Bangladesh signing a large cooperative framework over the 54 common rivers. Basin wise management would be practical and fruitful ways to ensure an effective management of sharing a depleting resource. Both sides are heavily agro based economies.

Dhaka’s fears over India’s implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and its ramification for Bangladesh has been allayed by the top leadership herself but people are not necessarily convinced. Similarly India’s inability to offer a political solution to the huge humanitarian Rohingya crises and India urging reparation of the Rohingya refugees seems hollow under the face of the intransigent Myanmar administration. India’s inability to improve the ground situation is not lost on them and while the numbers increase every single hour in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camps the problem is rather daunting and weighing Bangladesh down.

India Bangladesh bilateral trade continues to grow and for the first time Bangladesh has exported over a billion dollars’ worth, largely dominated by the apparel and clothing sector. Bangladesh remains the highest recipient of India’s Line of Credit (8 US$ billion). Much of this has been used for energy and transport sector. The benefits to the people has and will continue to be substantial. The developmental projects apart, the first time collaboration amongst India Japan and Bangladesh to build the mass transit transport in Dhaka will essentially serve the common people, the civil society fatigue is palpable. The lack of popular support for the present Bangladeshi government tends to spill over into India too. The moot question has always been when does the Indo-Bangladeshi bilateral turn irreversible? Despite the frenzied bilateral activities the jury remain out on that. The growing role of China in Bangladesh is not helping the bilateral ties.

India in the meantime had developed defence cooperation with Bangladesh. And just when it all looked good for the two neigbours, Bangladesh went and signed huge deals, covering trade and defence with China. Beijing has grown to be Dhaka’s trusted partner despite their belated start in 1975 and has positioned itself as a bipartisan player. The geographical distance and the lack of history, all works in favour of this bilateral. Seen from a distance, India and China seem to be competing for Dhaka’s attention and a new momentum seems to be unfolding. From building ports, roads, railways, bridges economic zones the spread is widening each day for both India and China. But China’s overwhelming role as Bangladesh’s defence partner is not lost on anyone.

The recent media reports about China building bases for the three submarines it sold to Bangladesh has raised some obvious concern for India. Fear of China using Bangladesh against India lurks always. Especially in the event of any non-Awami government coming to Dhaka. While bilateral agreements will keep getting signed is it not time for India and Bangladesh to partner a security architecture in the region that sees other players as a force multilateral rather than as collateral damage? At this juncture none is more suitable than Hasina and Modi to deliver a secure environment. They two sides need to go beyond the day to day business and seek to answer the larger question that begs the Asian powers. The jostling for power and show of upmanship will not be a win for anyone. Will Modi and Hasina unveil a larger plan to change the regional dynamics and build a different region? This moment in time should not slip by.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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