Keeping the focus firmly on South Asia, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj heads on her first stand-alone foreign visit to Dhaka June 25-27, a trip that promises to be symbolic as well as substantive in revitalising ties with New Delhi’s eastern neighbour.
In Dhaka, Mrs Swaraj will be engaging a wide swathe of the top Bangladesh leadership, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a well-esteemed friend of India who is keen to ramp up ties with New Delhi in pursuit of her 2021 vision of transforming Bangladesh into a middle country by the end of this decade.
The talks will seek to revive the momentum that tapered off in the last two years of the Manmohan Singh government, largely due to the failure of the last regime in New Delhi to sign the Teesta water river sharing agreement and the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement. The two pacts, which could have been a game-changer in transforming bilateral relations, were held up due to domestic political compulsions faced by the last dispensation. It’s now for the new Modi-led government, which has made South Asia its top foreign policy priority, to muster political will to push through these key pacts and move the India-Bangladesh ties onto a new trajectory, marked by greater trust and the drive for mutual empowerment.
In the talks, the Sheikh Hasina government will be looking for concrete assurances from India’s foreign minister on the Modi government’s attitude and strategy towards fructifying these two agreements, which hold the key to better ties in the long run. In her talks, Sushma Swaraj is expected to reiterate the Modi government’s commitment to raise the bar for India-Bangladesh relations and bind the partnership in a web of win-opportunities.
Armed with a clear parliamentary majority and a robust vision of an economically integrated South Asia, the Modi government is better placed and has greater room for manoeuvre in turning around this critical relationship in the neighbourhood. The talks will, therefore, focus on enhanced trade and investment, connectivity and people-to-people contacts.
Illegal immigration or infiltration of Bangladeshi nationals continue to be a contentious issue in bilateral ties. India’s foreign minister is expected to raise concerns over issues related to illegal immigration and also seek assurances on the protection of Hindus in Bangladesh.
Despite some disillusion in Bangladesh on account of the deferral in implementation of the two key pacts, the burgeoning economic relationship has presented a narrative of opportunity. Bilateral trade and investment have been on an upswing, enhancing the constituency of peace and friendship between the two subcontinental neighbours. Trade has surpassed US$ 5 billion per annum, with the duty free access given by India to Bangladesh for all items except 25. India’s premier industry body CII has raised the bar higher, and is confident that bilateral trade could be doubled to $10 billion by 2018 if some procedural bottlenecks are removed. Innovative steps like opening of border markets – two border haats are already operational with a few more coming up along the India-Bangladesh border – has brought people living in border areas in closer economic embrace. Another good news story is unfolding in the area of investment: Indian companies are betting big on the Bangladesh opportunity with Indian companies like Airtel, CEAT and Marico scaling up investments in Bangladesh. In this context, the signing of the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection agreement has proved to be a game-changer of sorts.
Moving beyond the twinned realms of economy and development, the India-Bangladesh ties are rapidly acquiring a strategic character. In this context, the talks between the foreign ministers of India and Bangladesh this week are expected to explore the contours of a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement that could upgrade the burgeoning relationship to a new level. The security and counter-terror cooperation has been increasing in the last few years, with the Sheikh Hasina government promptly acting against anti-India insurgents holed up in the Bangladesh territory, earning much appreciation from New Delhi. India and Bangladesh have signed a clutch of counter-terror pacts and a landmark extradition treaty which reflect greater strategic trust and comfort level between the two countries. Amid reports of radical Islamist group spreading their tentacles in Bangladesh, the security partnership looks set to grow in months to come.
(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-journal focused on international affairs and the India Story).
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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