Originally Published Dhaka Tribune Published on Jun 28, 2024

What does the future hold for this long-standing relationship?

PM Hasina’s second India sojourn: Paving the future of New Delhi-Dhaka ties

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina visited India twice this month, within a span of 12 days. She had previously been in New Delhi on June 9 during the newly re-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. Her second trip from June 21-22 involved interactions with the Indian President Draupadi Murmu, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, PM Modi, and the Indian Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar.

This is the first bilateral visit from another head of government after the formation of the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in India, following the conclusion of the 18th parliamentary election earlier this month. The visit not only symbolizes the significant diplomatic value that India and Bangladesh accord one another but is also strategically symbolic as it comes before PM Hasina’s scheduled visit to China in July, and with an invitation for Prime Minister Modi to visit Bangladesh.

The future vision statement released shortly after the visit is comprehensive and outlines multiple areas of cooperation in which India and Bangladesh will continue to cooperate in the coming years. The statement commences with the articulation that it is reflective of the all-encompassing partnership between the two countries built on shared values, trust, interests, equality, and understanding, that is “rooted in mutual sensitivity to each other’s aspirations and concerns.”

This is an interesting turn of phrase, not found in the joint statements that have been issued in the recent past. As such it may be interpreted as an indication of India’s consciousness about the Teesta issue and how it impacts the people of Bangladesh, and its desire to resolve this long pending concern.

Teesta is one of the four major rivers of Bangladesh and a primary source of livelihood for the agrarian population living in the country’s northern provinces. Naturally, the issue has been deliberated upon multiple times by both countries but federal complications between the government of India and the government of West Bengal from where the Teesta flows into Bangladesh prevented the conclusion of an international agreement. It is in these circumstances that China offered to invest in Dhaka’s Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration project as the river is important for its strategic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

However, this would bring China within 100km of India’s border, close to the Siliguri corridor -- a narrow strip of land connecting India’s Northeastern states with the rest of the country. Naturally, this proposition has been a cause of discomfort for New Delhi, especially as it faces border disputes with China along the periphery of its Northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Federal complications between the government of India and the government of West Bengal from where the Teesta flows into Bangladesh prevented the conclusion of an international agreement

The Hasina government in Bangladesh has always prioritized maintaining a balance in its relations with India and China. Manifesting the “sensitivity” mentioned in the vision statement, it has therefore been appreciative of India’s concerns, delaying acceptance of the Chinese offer. India has duly reciprocated with a proposal to help Bangladesh conserve and manage the Teesta River, as Bangladesh Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud disclosed early this year after his India sojourn and even after his interaction with the Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra in May. This has been confirmed by the recent vision statement.

As PM Hasina heads to Beijing next month, India’s Teesta promise provides her with a bargaining chip in her negotiations with China, just as it assuages India of its strategic concerns. Most importantly it will remove a major longstanding stumbling block in New Delhi-Dhaka ties.

India and Bangladesh share a natural partnership spanning across multiple domains. Over the past decade, the complementarities in governance between Modi and the Hasina governments have bolstered the bilateral relationship. Naturally, there will be continuity in their future exchanges. The sector of connectivity will continue to be prioritized as it facilitates commerce and people-to-people interactions, however, the geography of such initiatives is likely to shift from West Bengal to the Northeast with both governments keen on developing this region and third country funding available for such projects.

Among fresher domains, the decision to increase cooperation in the digital space, co-lead the “Disaster Risk Reduction and Management” pillar of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, strengthen defence cooperation, and help build Bangladesh’s satellite, will take India-Bangladesh ties to newer heights.

This commentary originally appeared in Dhaka Tribune.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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Sohini Bose

Sohini Bose

Sohini Bose is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme. Her area of research is India’s eastern maritime ...

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