MODI’S BANGLADESH TRIP: A GRAND START
Narendra Modi has won the won the hearts of Bangladeshis. His visit could herald the beginning of a great, mutually beneficial, relationship.
The journey, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a capacity crowd of Bangladeshi lawmakers, freedom fighters, intellectuals, academics and students at the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre in Dhaka on Sunday evening, has just begun.
For India and Bangladesh, this journey actually started 44 years ago, when Indian troops assisted Bangladeshi ‘mukti joddhas’ (freedom fighters) in overthrowing the repressive Pakistani regime in what was then East Pakistan. The first baby steps on forging a lasting friendship between the two nations were taken by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But the brutal assassination of Mujibur in the early hours of August 15, 1975, not only brought an abrupt end to this process, but also reversed it.
Since then, Indo-Bangla ties have been sour most of the time. During the spells of military rule that Bangladesh witnessed, the relationship had hit its lowest ebb. The military rulers and also many political parties, with the honourable exception of the Awami League, took a marked anti-India and pro-Pakistan stance and sheltered militant groups of North East India in that country.
These regimes also allowed China to increase its footprint in Bangladesh. It was only in 2009, after Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina (she escaped the 1975 assassination of her parents, siblings and family members since she was out of the country at that time) assumed power that she put in motion the process to improve ties with India. One of her very first acts was cracking down on insurgents from India holed up in her country and deporting them.
New Delhi started reciprocating in small ways. But the UPA II regime in power at that time was beset with many internal problems and scams and, thus, could not take any robust steps to build ties with Bangladesh. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011 was marred by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s last-minute decision to not support the proposed agreement on sharing waters of the Teesta river with Bangladesh and exchanging enclaves. Manmohan Singh, not quite a politician, could not get Mamata on board.
This time, Modi not only got Mamata Banerjee to support the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) for exchange of enclaves between the two countries, he also got her commitment to support his efforts to cement ties with Bangladesh and make the process of close cooperation with our neighbour an irreversible one.
Modi-Mamata-DhakaPrime Minister Modi in conversation with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Dhaka.
Modi succeeded where Manmohan failed due to not only the force of his personality, but also his political instincts and shrewd realpolitik. Unlike his predecessor, Modi took care to address Bengal’s concerns on the LBA before he embarked on his maiden visit to Dhaka. And it is amply clear from the 22 agreements signed between the two countries that a lot of homework was done by various ministries and Indian diplomats before this visit. Singh fell short on this front too, perhaps because real power did not lie in his hands and hence his bureaucrats and ministers felt free to flout his biddings.
But Modi’s visit to Bangladesh is different from visits to many other countries by Indian Prime Ministers and even by Modi himself to some other countries. Since the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls last year, Modi emerged as a popular figure in Bangladesh—he was seen as a resolute leader whose sole agenda was development and progress, a leader who would stand up to any big power and safeguard his country’s interests.
Books on Modi, especially the one penned by Andy Marino, started selling well in Dhaka a year ago and continue to do so. This perhaps explains the public euphoria over his visit. Modi is a popular figure in Bangladesh, a man that many Bangladeshis see as a regional leader who respects Bangladesh and its people and looks upon the neighbour as an equal partner in progress.
No Indian leader, except Indira Gandhi, has received such adulation from Bangladesh, which has always been suspicious of India. Successive regimes in New Delhi have focused too much on Pakistan and neglected building ties with Bangladesh, something that Modi set to correct when he assumed power a year ago.
The significance of Modi getting the LBA Bill passed in Parliament by reaching out to Mamata was not lost on Bangladeshis. The YouTube clip of a turbaned BJP MP S.S. Ahluwalia speaking on the floor of Lok Sabha in support of the Bill in chaste Bangla last month went viral in Bangladesh and became the subject of effusive editorials in newspapers there. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s speech while introducing the bill in the Lok Sabha was also very well received in Bangladesh.
Modi built on all this and convinced the Bangladeshi leadership that it would be in that country’s interests to cooperate with India and grant India transit through its land and waterways. He was instrumental in charting the course that yielded landmark win-win deals like setting up an SEZ exclusively for Indian companies in Bangladesh, extending an enhanced $2 billion line of credit to that country and getting Bangladesh to allow access to Mongla and Chittagong ports to Indian vessels, to name a few.
And all this, as Modi said on Sunday evening, is just the beginning. The prospects for cooperation between the two countries is immense, and the agreements signed between the two countries on Saturday are just the tip of the iceberg of limitless possibilities that can usher in a new era of development and prosperity for Bangladesh and India, especially eastern and north eastern India.
Modi articulated his vision for the region very succinctly during his lecture on Sunday evening. Punctuated by ‘Modi, Modi’ chants and loud applause, Modi received a standing ovation at the end of his more-than-hour-long lecture that will resonate within Bangladesh for a long time to come. Modi’s visit was also unprecedented in the sense that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, lauded the visit and promised to cooperate with India. This has never happened before.
Modi Dhaka speech
That Modi is a great orator needs no reiteration. But this speech was a masterstroke. To cite an example, Bangladeshis are extremely proud of the achievements of their cricket team and Modi took the names of Bangladeshi cricketers to laud their prowess on the pitch. He said that the team, though a late entrant into the cricketing world, had made its mark in a very short time.
This is exactly what Bangladeshis never tire of pointing out, especially to Indians. But Modi mentioning this in his speech and then going on to say that he takes pride in the achievements of the Bangladeshi cricket team as a neighbour simply bowled the people of that country over. There were many such memorable mentions in his speech that made the people of Bangladesh proud of their achievements—in areas like women’s empowerment, educating the girl child etc. The speech also pitched Modi as a person who can assume a leadership role in this region to propel both countries, as well as Nepal and Bhutan, into a mutually beneficial economic bloc and usher in peace and prosperity.
This, essentially, is the dream Modi sold to Bangladesh. The visit over, it is now time to start working to realize the dreams Modi has kindled. And also to plan for the future keeping in mind the fact that till 1947, what is now West Bengal, Bangladesh and the seven North East Indian states were one economic entity, and a very prosperous one.
JUNE 09, 2015