After a long delay of seven years and some postponements, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, will finally pay an official visit to India. This visit - scheduled for 7-10 April 2017 - will have a long-term impact on South Asian regional political architecture, the India-Bangladesh relationship, and on the domestic politics of Bangladesh. According to reports, Hasina will stay at Rashtrapati Bhavan during her visit, which may be because of her interpersonal relationship with the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. However, this does not rule out the symbolic significance India is according to the prime minister of Bangladesh.
Strategically, the Bay of Bengal is India's backyard where, riding on Bangladesh's back, China seems to be setting up its foothold. This is apparent in the growing Bangladesh-China defence relationship, especially between their naval forces. Since 2010, Beijing has supplied Dhaka with five maritime patrol vessels, two corvettes, and anti-ship missiles. Recently, two Ming-class submarines joined the Bangladeshi naval fleet in November 2016. The procurement cost for the submarines was USD 203 million, which is a large sum for a low-income country like Bangladesh. They are Type 035G diesel-electric submarines armed with torpedoes and mines. During Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Dhaka in October 2016, Bangladesh and China entered into a ‘Strategic Partnership of Cooperation’.
To maintain its strategic interests in the Bay of Bengal, India proposed defence cooperation with Bangladesh. The momentum for it was built up during the then Indian Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar's, visit to Dhaka from 30 November to 1 December 2016. At that time, Parrikar presented an idea of having a comprehensive defence agreement between India and Bangladesh. He also offered India’s expertise to train Bangladesh's Coast Guard for enhanced capacity building to guard its southern coastlines along the Bay of Bengal. India further convinced Bangladesh to sign a defence deal during Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar's visit to Dhaka on 23 February 2017. As a result of these two visits, India and Bangladesh are set to sign two agreements and seven Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) related to defence issues during Hasina's upcoming visit. According to The Daily Star, “they include a “Defence Cooperation Agreement,” a technical agreement between the Bangladesh Navy and the Indian Navy, and seven MoUs on issues ranging from enhancing cooperation in the field of “National Security and Strategic Studies” to research.” The article also maintained that India is interested in having a “comprehensive deal with Bangladesh on defence, while the latter prefers a MoU to an agreement.” Although declared as a ‘normal’ visit, India's Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat is expected to visit Dhaka on 30 and 31 March, 2017, in order to do some homework on India-Bangladesh defence cooperation.
Some opposition groups in Bangladesh have objected to signing an India-Bangladesh deal because they feel India can strengthen its hold over their country via the deal. Senior Joint Secretary General of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party Ruhul Kabir Rizvi was quoted by The Financial Express as saying “signing any defence deal or memorandum of understanding with India will be a dangerous venture for Bangladesh...We think Bangladesh’s defence system will turn into India’s extended one if Bangladesh procures military hardware from that country.”
The second issue which will set the pace of the India-Bangladesh relationship is that of the Teesta river water sharing treaty. It is considered that by implementing the Teesta river water sharing agreement, India will attain more strategic space in and around Bangladesh’s coastlines in the Bay of Bengal. For Hasina, the deal is important and will have an impact on her electoral prospects in Bangladesh's upcoming 2018 parliamentary elections.
Understanding both equations - India’s strategic need, and the relevance of Hasina as the prime minister of Bangladesh - since 2011, the government of India has agreed to release about 50 per cent of the river's water to Bangladesh; but West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is against it. In addition to political differences with the central government, Banerjee's reluctance also stems from the water situation in five districts of the North Bengal - Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri, South and North Dinajpur, and Darjeeling - that fall in the Teesta River's catchment areas. The West Bengal state government believes that transfer of such a quantity of water - approximately 33,000 cubic feet per second to Bangladesh - would affect the irrigation system in the abovementioned districts in the state. On the prospect of any sort of breakthrough on Teesta during the Hasina’s visit, the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, was quoted in the Indian media as saying “Everything is work in progress. We’ll have to see what is possible and what is not possible.”
More than anything, Hasina’s visit will test the flexibility of political leadership of both countries to accommodate the interests of the ‘other', which is proportionately related to securing their respective interests.
The views expressed in this piece are personal.