Originally Published 2015-06-05 00:00:00 Published on Jun 05, 2015
Modi's visit to Dhaka is likely to focus on greater economic cooperation and engagement. Some of the major highlights of the visit will be on rail, road and water connectivity as well as coastal shipping services.
Modi's visit will boost India-Bangladesh ties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's maiden visit to Bangladesh on June 6, 2015 is expected to give a major boost to India-Bangladesh relations. The visit is part of Modi's "Neighbourhood First" policy and comes just a month after the Indian Parliament adopted the historic Constitutional Amendment Bill that will facilitate implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement signed between India and Bangladesh in 1974.

This development significantly helped to remove the feeling of distrust amongst many in Bangladesh on India's position and intentions on delivering on the LBA. Considering the prevailing euphoria attached to Modi's forthcoming visit, the two countries should try to capitalise on the positive mood and aim at deepening their relationship — catapulting it to the next level of cooperation whereby Bangladesh can become a major partner in establishing peace and prosperity in the region.

Bangladesh, with a population of 160 million and having a consistent economic growth of more than 6 percent for a decade now, is an important neighbour for India. India also shares its longest border with Bangladesh and has common cultural, social and historical links. It played an important role in the liberation of Bangladesh. All these factors make the case for an Indo-Bangladesh partnership much stronger.

Following Modi's election, there was some apprehension in Bangladesh regarding the future of the bilateral relationship that had made substantial progress during Manmohan Singh's tenure. It augurs well that the two governments have proved sceptics wrong. Bangladesh was the first Muslim-majority country that reached out to Modi even months before he was elected. Also, Prime Minister Sheikh Haisna was among the first few heads of government to congratulate Modi on his election and invited him to visit Bangladesh, overlooking the apprehensions back home.

By inviting leaders from all the neighbouring countries for his swearing-in ceremony, Modi clearly made known his preference for strengthening relations with these countries. This also played a major role in changing perceptions in Bangladesh. Perception is an important element in India-Bangladesh relations. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Bangladesh in August 2014 was a major game-changer. It showed that India-Bangladesh relations were high on the Modi Government's agenda.

There are other indications of the relationship being on an upward trajectory: Modi and Sheikh Hasina met twice last year, in September and November, on the sidelines of UN General Assembly and ASEAN Summit respectively. These meetings have significantly helped to develop a greater understanding and warmth between the two leaders.

Bangladeshis also view Modi more positively. His address to the Indian diasporas worldwide, and especially at Madison Square garden in New York, helped to create this build this positive opinion. Also, his ability to gain consensus among the political parties in India on the Land Boundary Agreement has gone down well with Bangladeshis. Today, people look at Modi with hope and regard him as true leader of South Asia who can transcend boundaries and represent the region in a positive light.

With the enthusiasm, expectations are high with the visit. Considering the long list of issues between the two countries from sharing of river water, trade, border management challenges like illegal movement of people, cross border crimes-like smuggling of cattle, arms and narco trade, fake currencies, connectivity, expecting resolution of all in this visit is unrealistic.

The visit is likely to give emphasis on strengthening rail, road and water connectivity, greater economic engagement and deeper security cooperation. The two countries are all set to sign number of agreements including in areas of connectivity and people to people contact. Bus route to Agartala-Kolkata via Dhaka and Guwahati-Dhaka are likely to flag of during the visit. The visit will also functionalise the land boundary agreement.

Another important highlight will be agreement on coastal shipping to facilitate movement of small vessels from India to various ports in Bangladesh. On trade front, efforts will be to increase Indian investment in Bangladesh and a Memorandum of Understanding is likely to be signed to enable establishment of a special economic zone for Indian industries. There will also be talks about the sub-regional BBIN initiative (Bangladesh, Bhutan India and Nepal). BBIN countries are all set to sign a sub-regional transport agreement.

Signing of agreement on water sharing of Teesta would have to wait. Sushma Swaraj has ruled out the possibility of inking the agreement for now. The Teesta agreement was to be signed during the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh in September 2011 but was postponed at the last minute after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee objected to the draft agreement.

For a lasting impact of the visit, there is need for some concrete outcome on a few long-standing bilateral issues. Bangladesh will need to show its willingness for transit to transport goods from West Bengal to Northeast India. In fact, during Sheikh Hasina's visit to India, Bangladesh committed to grant transit to India but nothing much has been achieved so far. The reason Bangladesh gives is that its poor infrastructure is not yet prepared to grant India transit. India may consider helping Bangladesh to develop its infrastructure as this may further push Dhaka move faster on the transit issue.

New Delhi has already relaxed the visa regime to make travel easier for Bangladeshis visiting India for business and medical purposes. As part of this effort, the government may also consider easing the process of the filing visa applications - easy online applications could be explored.

In the recent years, India and Bangladesh have established significant cooperative mechanisms for border management along their shared border. However, the issue of illegal cross border movement often involving cross border militant activities remain a major challenge. The incident of Burdwan blast in October 2014 which revealed involvement of Bangladeshi militant organisation Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh in West Bengal is a case in point. Setting up high-level dialogue on security and border management cooperation between the two countries may be timely.

Lastly, for a stable and durable bilateral relationship, an important element is to ensure that mutual interests of the two countries drive the relationship, irrespective of whichever party is in power. In this context, New Delhi needs to continue to engage all the political parties in Bangladesh.

(The writer is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)

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Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee (1975 2021) was Senior Fellow with ORF. She specialised in Indias neighbourhood policy the eastern arch: Bangladeshs domestic politics and foreign policy: border ...

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