The visit of the new External Affairs Minister of India Sushma Swaraj to Dhaka is timely and of importance. If pursued with the right spirit sustained momentum, Bangladesh has the potential of becoming a huge success story for the new government’s approach towards its neighbourhood.
Consider the current strategic environment in this part of the region. It is positive, despite minor setbacks, and has the potential to take bilateral relations to a new level. The government in Dhaka may not be totally pro-India but is certainly not anti-India. Even the public attitude towards India in Bangladesh has remained positive in the last few years. At the external level, the proposed BCIM corridor with Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar is bound to bring Dhaka closer and open new vistas in bilateral relations relating to trade and movement of goods. It is unfortunate that the previous government could not make use of this positive environment and convert it into a success story for New Delhi in the neighbourhood.
The High Commissioner of Bangladesh in New Delhi has been earnestly campaigning to keep the momentum going between the two governments in Delhi and Dhaka. Unfortunately, New Delhi during the last phase of Manmohan Singh’s leadership let the momentum slow down. Mamata Banerjee was made a scapegoat - although did play a role in being a spoilsport, Manmohan Singh could have taken the relationship forward despite it if he was serious. This should be the first approach that Sushma Swaraj ensures in terms of regaining the momentum with Bangladesh and bulldozing bilateral relations forward.
Such a regaining of momentum could be done by engaging Dhaka in a constructive roadmap and making it a gateway for India’s Look East Policy (LEP). That could be the second approach for the new government towards Bangladesh. For a long time, New Delhi has been talking about its Look East policy, with Myanmar and India’s Northeast as gateways. Geographically and strategically, Dhaka should be the gateway for India’s LEP. Land and maritime access and trade and travel routes have to criss-cross eastern India comprising West Bengal and the Northeast and Bangladesh before entering Myanmar and progressing further east.
Like India, Bangladesh also has a serious stake in looking east. The ongoing Rohingya crisis and the violence against Bengali Muslims in Rakhine State has dented Bangladesh-Myanmar relations; worse was the recent firing and subsequent killing of a Bangladeshi soldier by Myanmarese guards along the border which has galvanised anti-Myanmar sentiment within Bangladesh. Despite this, Dhaka has to look east for it makes much economic sense in terms of trade and even the movement of Bangladeshi labour to ASEAN countries, especially Singapore and Malaysia. This provides an opportunity for India and Bangladesh to work together; in fact, New Delhi and Dhaka could Look East together.
In order to ensure that Dhaka is willing to be India’s gateway, the new government has to constructively engage Bangladesh in multiple sub-regional forums and institutions. If the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) offers one such opportunity, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which is older than the former, offers another opening to work with other countries in the region, which include Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand. While the first one would provide a great opportunity in terms of establishing infrastructure for trade and movement of goods, the second would be greatly beneficial in integrating the eastern part of the region.
Obviously, there have been issues over bilateral trade between the two countries despite the multiple agreements. Sharing of river waters will be another serious issue, given the alarming use of water war bogeys in the sub-continent and the emotionalism attached to it. Both could be over come if India and Bangladesh are integrated with the rest of the region. In fact, such an approach would even provide much needed space for the government in Delhi from its anti-India detractors and opposition.
The third and equally important approach is to use India’s border with Bangladesh as a bridge between the two countries. Bangladesh is not ‘India-locked’ but surrounded by West Bengal and the Northeast. What is generally referred as an ‘India lock’ is in fact always open, all along the border, despite the fencing. The illegal movement of people, goods and cattle mocks the entire concept of Bangladesh being ‘India-locked’. While it is a political issue, the hard reality also is that there is a market for this movement, and a regional economy within India thriving on this illegal border crossing of people, goods and even cattle.
New Delhi will have to provide some space to the regional states, as Beijing provides to Yunnan and Sichuan, in reaching out to the region. It is by no means an argument asking for the decentralisation of foreign policy, but only a petition to listen to the regional voices and use the border as a bridge to integrate Bangladesh better with West Bengal and the Northeast. Instead of looking only through the prism of bilateral trade and illegal migration, other innovative means could be used to help such a process of integration. There are ample means for the legal movement of people for different purposes – from conferences to football matches to more border haats - to bring the two civil societies together, especially along the borders of India.
Finally, the new government will have to engage in a charm offensive; the much debated but least used ‘soft power’ of India could very well part of such an engagement. While the reservations and restrictions imposed by the Home Ministry in this context is understandable, the PMO should allow the Foreign Ministry to have a larger role in deciding the movement of people, especially students, journalists, teachers, members of the strategic, business and fine arts communities etc. By no means are these people going to be a threat to India and are bound to return to Bangladesh as India’s unofficial ambassadors. In fact, New Delhi should provide multiple entry visas to a broad category of people and allow the foreign ministry to decide this movement. By not allowing this movement, we are not only choking bilateral relations but also our own voice in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh under the present government in Dhaka provides a huge opportunity. The new government in New Delhi should make use of this momentum and take the process forward in making Dhaka India’s gateway towards the East.
The original version of this article appeared in Hindustani in Hindi on 27 June 2014