WHY SUPPORTING SHEIKH HASINA IS ESSENTIAL FOR MODI’S ACT EAST POLICY
The change of thinking on transit issues that we have seen under the Bangladesh prime minister is of great importance.
Prime Minister Modi is committed to the objective of improving ties with all our neighbouring countries. He believes that India can enhance prosperity in the region by pulling all South Asian economies upwards through its own economic growth.
To stress India’s goodwill, he gave priority to our neighbourhood in choosing his visits abroad. He began with Bhutan and later visited Nepal and Sri Lanka. He could not visit Maldives because of the political turmoil there. A visit to Pakistan will have to wait till there is a change in its unrelenting hostility towards India.
Modi invited all the SAARC leaders to his swearing-in, but the prime minister of Bangladesh could not attend as she was travelling abroad herself. External affairs minister (EAM) Swaraj visited Bangladesh in June 2015, in what was her first visit abroad as EAM. Her visit, by all accounts, went off very well. She gave a commitment to address Bangladesh’s concerns over sharing of Teesta waters and implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), and also handed over Modi’s letter to Hasina in which he pledged to further strengthen the framework of ties. Within a month of her visit, the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a verdict that resolved the long standing maritime dispute between the two countries. By removing one more irritant in the relationship the ground was further cleared for building a stronger India-Bangladesh entente. Modi himself has had to defer his visit to Bangladesh until progress could be made on the two outstanding issues and key deliverables of Teesta waters and the LBA.
Modi’s pragmatism is now a well established fact. He has a flexible view of the strategy India should pursue to strengthen its position internationally and achieve the development goals he has in mind. On the India-US nuclear deal, which the BJP had opposed when the UPA was in power, he reached breakthrough understandings with Obama on the liability law and administrative arrangements for tracking the US-supplied nuclear materials. It was wrong of the BJP to oppose the September 2011 Protocol to the 1974 LBA agreed to by the UPA government. Our national interest then and now required the strengthening of Sheikh Hasina’s political hands. After a long interregnum we had a friendly government in Bangladesh which was weeding out anti-Indian insurgents from its soil and suppressing radical Islamic elements at home. Her success in this would have contrasted with the rise of radical Islam in Pakistan and West Asia in general.
A large Muslim country to our east moving in the direction of a more “secular” polity was a clear strategic gain for us. Moreover, Bangladesh is a key link in our Act East policy. We are blocked towards our west by Pakistan, radical Islam and terrorism. Barring energy, the economy prize for us in the West is also limited, as this is not a region of high economic growth. When one talks of economic power moving towards Asia, the reference is to Asia to the east of us. It is towards this region that India should move economically on a priority basis, especially when the countries of this region want India to play a more active role there. Unlike to our west, we have no cultural, religious, political or economic impediments that stand in the way of an eastward expansion of a benevolent and mutually beneficial Indian presence. In this connection untying the Bangladesh knot is important as this can greatly facilitate our Act East policy, besides helping to promote the development of our northeast region. The change of thinking in Bangladesh on transit issues that we have seen under Sheikh Hasina is of great importance.
The three issues that the September 2011 protocol resolves are the undemarcated land boundary of approximately 6.1km, exchange of enclaves and adverse possessions. This will result in a fixed demarcated boundary in all the undemarcated segments and exchange of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh (about 17,160 acres) with 51 Bangladesh enclaves in india (about 7,110 acres). As regards adversely possessed areas, India will receive about 2,777 acres and will transfer about 2,267. In both cases it will mean either a notional exchange as these enclaves are not physically accessible to either country, or accepting a procedural acceptance of the de facto situation on the ground with regard to adverse possessions. It is well to remember that the 2011 protocol had the concurrence of the state governments concerned (Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal). With this agreement now approved by Parliament, the border should be better managed and the problem of smuggling, illegal activities and transborder crimes better addressed, besides the gains of enhanced security, trade, transit and development that can now be expected.
Once again, Modi has shown pragmatism, courage and political acumen in shifting the party’s past political position on the LBA and getting this agreement through in parliament under his watch, and that too unanimously. He seems to have wisely resisted efforts to exclude Assam from the purview of the agreement because of local electoral considerations. If Modi’s leadership deserves applause, it also goes to the credit of the Indian polity as a whole that on issues of clear national interest, a united view can be taken, even when sensitive territorial issues are involved.
MAY 12, 2015