MODI’S BANGLADESH VISIT: LAYING BLUEPRINT FOR COOPERATION
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun his second year in office with the just-concluded historic bilateral visit to Bangladesh (June 6-7, 2015). The visit was preceded by meticulous preparation which began immediately after Modi came to power in May 2014, and the Joint Declaration released at the end of the visit clearly reflects this. Modi along with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina have laid the blueprint for cooperation. Modi’s visit was welcomed across the political spectrum in Bangladesh. This will contribute to both continuity and stability of the bilateral relations. India needs to seize the moment, build consensus within the country and deliver on its assurances to Bangladesh. When implemented, the various agreements on connectivity and transit to India’s north-east through Bangladesh on the one hand and the various measures proposed for effective border management on the other should usher in a wave of development which will change the destiny of India’s northeast and India-Bangladesh bilateral relations.
Preparations for the Visit
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first standalone visit abroad after assuming office in June 2014 was to Bangladesh. In Dhaka, she spelt out India’s policy of building a comprehensive and equitable partnership with Bangladesh. The progress made by both the countries in areas of security, economic development, sub-regional cooperation, opening of the Indian market to Bangladeshi goods, border infrastructure, energy cooperation, connectivity and people-to-people cooperation were all spelt out. She identified areas which had potential for development like the establishment of energy corridors; telecommunications, diesel and LNG highways; and promoting tourism. She spelt out the need to expedite border infrastructure projects, encourage more trade through railways, waterways and coastal shipping so as to decongest existing trade routes. She also referred to bilateral unresolved issues such as the sharing of Teesta waters, implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and its Protocol and border management. She said that her government was committed to addressing all these issues in a manner that improves the welfare of the people of both the countries. Most important, she expressed India’s gratitude for the cooperation it had received from Bangladesh in combating trans-boundary crime, insurgency and terrorism and how the cooperation of both the countries on these issues is a model for others.
Indeed Sushma Swaraj picked the threads from the work done by the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and laid the groundwork for what her government intended to do. The positive tone was further strengthened when the two Prime Ministers, Modi and Sheikh Hasina met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and again in November 2014, during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Kathmandu, Nepal. The officials at various levels have also been meeting, which included the 3rd meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission of the Foreign Ministers in September 15, 2014, and Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Bangladesh as part of his SAARC Yatra on March 2, 2015. Significantly, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also visited Bangladesh on February 19-21 and met the leaders there and assured them of her cooperation. Meanwhile the July 7, 2014 award of the Tribunal on the Maritime Boundary Arbitration between India and Bangladesh settled the long pending maritime boundary.
The Tasks Ahead
The visit took place in the positive atmosphere of the unanimous ratification in May 2015 by the Indian Parliament of the LBA of 1974. The instruments of ratification were exchanged between the two governments during Prime Minister Modi’s visit. The Joint Declaration, “Notun Projonmo – Nayi Disha”, reflects this new trust, spells out in detail the wide gamut of issues discussed and the direction in which progress is sought to be achieved.
Some of the issues include cooperation on security related issues; Coordinated Border Management Plan; expediting agreements on sharing of river waters; cooperation in the power sector, renewable energy and nuclear energy; sub-regional cooperation under BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) framework; sustainable and mutually beneficial economic cooperation and narrowing the trade imbalance; opening new avenues and multiple modes of connectivity; India announced a second Line of Credit worth US $2 billion; work on maritime cooperation; increasing people-to-people cooperation; working closely in regional groupings, multilateral organisations and the United Nations.
Many theoretical studies have shown that all countries have certain core issues which if unresolved tend to negate the progress, how much ever it may be, on other issues. Ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement, resolving the maritime boundary, sharing of water of the common rivers and reducing the trade gap are critical for Bangladesh. The first and second have been satisfactorily resolved. The other two need to be addressed on high priority.
India’s belief that SEZ for Indian investment in Bangladesh will address the issue of trade gap has been agreed upon. The Indian government and the Indian private sector have to now come forward and make this a reality. The inability to come to an agreement on the sharing of the Teesta river waters has disappointed many on both sides of the border, especially so in Bangladesh. In fact some opinions in Bangladesh are questioning their government committing on transit issues for India to its northeast through Bangladesh without any progress on the water issue. The central and state governments in India need to build consensus on the sharing of river waters and then negotiate with Bangladesh for a mutual satisfactory agreement at the earliest.
Need for Monitoring Implementation
A blueprint is a beginning, not an end. Neither Bangladesh nor India can afford to falter in its implementation at this juncture. Civil society groups, the academia, various business interest groups, the print and electronic media and the citizens of both the countries need to monitor its implementation.
G.Padmaja, a former United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research Visiting Research Fellow at the United Nations, Geneva is presently an independent researcher writing on SAARC and India’s Foreign Policy towards its immediate neighbours.
JUNE 15, 2015