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#4889, 15 June 2015

Looking East

Modi-fying India-Bangladesh Ties
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS

His oratory might have wowed the Bangladeshis, but rhetoric aside, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also demonstrated his intent to consolidate New Delhi-Dhaka ties and take it to a high point from where there would be no looking back. During his 40-hour visit to Bangladesh, Modi tried to strike a chord with Bangladeshis with enough quotable quotes: “Hum pass pass hain/Hum sath sath bhi hain (We are geographically close, we are also closely tied).” Modi told his audience he and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke the same language - that of development.

His intent was reflected in the 22 agreements the two neighbours signed on issues of connectivity, education, infrastructure, maritime and energy security, and trade, among others. He didn’t forget to assure Dhaka that the contentious water-sharing issue would be pursued. “Panchi, Pavan aur pani” (birds, air and water) do not need visas, he said, to chants of ‘Modi, Modi’ by the audience. This was hint enough that there would soon be movement on the Teesta water-sharing issue. The Prime Minister spoke a language the Bangladeshis love to hear, leading to enough euphoria with which to sign off his visit.

New Delhi hopes to tread on the path laid out by Modi, riding on the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) that has become a reality with the prime ministers exchanging the instruments of the deal that is on the verge of resolving the 41-year-old boundary dispute. India and Bangladesh are supposed to begin the enclave transfers on 31 July. Having resolved the thorny issue of the land boundary dispute, it was time to move on. One would like to mention two sectors that New Delhi and Dhaka picked to top the cooperation agenda - energy and maritime issues.

If the deals are taken forward, India has the potential to emerge as the key partner of Bangladesh in the energy field. Dhaka has set itself a target of achieving an installed capacity of 24,000 megawatts (MW) by 2021. New Delhi expects Indian companies to get into power generation, transmission and distribution in Bangladesh. While India has agreed to raise power exports to 1,000 MW, from the existing 500 MW, Reliance Power, in the private sector, signed a deal to generate 3,000 MW of electricity at a cost of US$3 billion with the state-run Bangladesh Power Development Board. Besides, two coal-fired plants with a 1,600 MW total capacity will be set up by Adani Power Ltd at an estimated cost of over US$1.5 billion.

Of the 22 deals signed, perhaps the most significant was the Memorandum of Understanding on the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports by Indian cargo vessels. Like some of the civilian ports in India’s neighbourhood, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, the Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh too have been under the Chinese shadow. Not only does this deal letting Indian vessels use these ports come in handy for servicing the land-locked Northeastern Indian states, it also signals the growing bond between India and Bangladesh and a lessening of the trust deficit. And yes, it would help India offset some of the Chinese influence on Bangladesh. After all, New Delhi cannot ignore the fact that Sheikh Hasina has chosen to call China one of Bangladesh’s “most dependable partners.” China, of course, is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and supplier of military hardware. One must also put on record the fact that New Delhi is keen to be in Bangladesh, building a deep sea port at Paira in Patuakhali district, a project that could cost over US$2 billion. China, UK and the Netherlands, too, are eyeing the project.

Modi’s politically correct behaviour in Dhaka has not really impressed the political class as well as the civil society in the Northeast, a region that shares 1880 km of the 4096 km long India-Bangladesh border. First, he chose to let West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accompany him during the visit, and not one chief minister from the Northeast. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, a veteran Congress leader, said the decision to leave aside chief ministers from the Northeast goes against the spirit of cooperative federalism. He said Modi’s decision to only take Mamata Banerjee gives an impression that the Northeastern chief ministers are against good ties between India and Bangladesh.

The bigger point, however, is that Modi did not raise the critical issues of infiltration, repatriation, smuggling and illegal trade with his Bangladeshi counterpart. Dhaka has always maintained that there has been no illegal migration of Bangladeshis to India - which is another story - but the issue continues to frustrate those in the Northeast. In fact, during the 2014 Parliamentary election campaign, Modi managed to arouse people’s passion by saying that once the BJP Government came to power in Delhi, ‘Bangladeshis’ (meaning illegal migrants) would have to pack their bags and leave India. The BJP in Assam, hoping to grab power from the Congress in the 2016 Assembly polls, is actually on the back-foot over Modi’s decision not to raise this ticklish issue with Sheikh Hasina. For the record, the Assam BJP was opposed to the LBA as well, but fell in line after directives from the party top-brass.

Modi was clearly on a trip of “connecting lands and binding hearts,” as the Ministry of External Affairs put it. That was reflected with the flagging off of the Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and the Guwahati-Shillong-Dhaka bus services. Whether the “visit of high hopes,” as Bangladeshi newspapers called the trip, is able to deliver is left to be seen, but the course on which to tread has been set.

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