The long anticipated visit by Sheikh Hasina is an opportunity to freshen and re-animate ties between India and its important neighbour to the east. Not that there is any pressing need for new initiatives: relations are good, there is plenty of cooperation between India and Bangladesh, and few outstanding issues that demand attention. The closest there is to a dispute is the division of the waters of the Teesta, and that too need not be an insuperable problem, for the basic groundwork has been done, with extensive negotiations yielding an agreement in principle that former Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was all set to sign in Dhaka but was forced to delay owing to unexpected backing off by the West Bengal Chief Minister, whose support was ~ and is ~ crucial. Thus the technical basis of a balanced agreement has been established but the uncertainties of Centre-State relations in India have stood in the way of a final settlement.
Since the earlier near-miss on Teesta, much has changed, in that India is under a different leadership which is widely perceived as being more decisive, and certainly is much stronger in Parliament, hence expectations about river-sharing have revived, for New Delhi could well be in a better position today to come to terms on the water-sharing agreement that Bangladesh has been seeking. Another factor to be noted is that while India has undergone sweeping political change Bangladesh has remained under the same leadership ~ that of Sheikh Hasina ~ and this continuity could be helpful when it comes to reviving the earlier effort on the Teesta.
Sheikh Hasina’s exceptional record as a discerning leader who has transcended differences and established meaningful cooperation with India should also be acknowledged. It was under her leadership that the landmark agreement on sharing of the Ganga waters at Farakka was concluded; indeed, it can be argued that without her the Ganga would have remained the biggest obstacle to good relations, as it was for the previous half-century. At that time, too, there were strong differences on water-sharing between Kolkata and New Delhi, which were ruled by parties that had strong political differences, but yet they were able to come together in the shared cause of peace and development. If Sheikh Hasina gave the lead from Dhaka, she was able to count on the participation and support of the State Government in Kolkata under Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, and of PM I.K.Gujral’s government in New Delhi. The agreement on the Ganga waters, as it turned out, was a prelude to other water-related issues, of which the Teesta is currently the most prominent, though there are others that may well move up when Teesta is sorted out. As past experience indicates, sharing the river waters is always politically fraught and needs consistent high-level consideration, for problems can keep arising in dealing with the numerous trans-border rivers between India and Bangladesh.
As the lower riparian, Bangladesh may feel that its concerns tend to be overlooked: this was the case when the Ganga agreement was being negotiated, and echoes of the same sentiment are to be heard today when another water agreement is being put together. As a means of giving itself some leverage in dealing with its larger and geographically better placed neighbour Bangladesh has spoken of the possibility of a broader regional water-sharing agreement that would include China among the negotiating parties. The upper waters of the Teesta rise in Tibet so there is some apparent logic in the suggestion, even though India has never favoured third party association with bilateral issues of this nature and there can be little realistic expectation of bringing third parties into the Teesta discussion.
Apart from the rivers issue, there are several other matters that can be advanced during Sheikh Hasina’s visit, some being projects to be financed out of a substantial loan that India is to provide. Infrastructure development and better connectivity have long been on the list of joint activities to which both countries are committed though the follow-up has remained insufficient. For India, revival of the route across Bangladesh is the most efficient way of getting across to the North-East, and it would make a big difference to the development of that region. Conceivably, should trans-border communications improve, Chittagong could resume its role as the port for the eastern part of the sub-continent and Bangladesh become a central element in the evolution of India’s ‘Make East’ policy. The possibilities are unending. Some of these themes figure in the large number of bilateral agreements that are to be signed during Sheikh Hasina’s visit and they could give real substance to the relationship.
An MOU on cooperation in defence manufactures is also part of the expected outcome from the visit, and this has drawn some criticism in Bangladesh from elements that do not welcome closer ties with India.That the Prime Minister of Bangladesh has not permitted such groups to call the tune indicates the firmness of her conviction in the matter. She has been a consistent advocate of better India-Bangladesh ties and has helped steer the relationship in a positive direction.
After long initial travail, Bangladesh has succeeded in overcoming many of its early problems and is today rightly to be regarded as a significant partner in India’s growth and development plans. In some respects Bangladesh has moved ahead of India, as for instance in its progress in programmes for poverty reduction, health, and education: India may have something to gain from closer interaction in these sectors. India’s constant effort to combat terrorism and to lead the international community in that direction is an important area of mutual interest. At one stage the authorities in Dhaka were reluctant to press too hard against religious extremists who often targeted India but ever since Sheikh Hasina came to power there has been none of the former ambiguity in this matter. Bangladesh itself has been targeted and is a resolute opponent of terrorism in all its manifestations.
One must also recall that Bangladesh has a fine record as a creative source of many significant regional initiatives. The most important of these is the setting up of SAARC, which is now an established part of the regional architecture but could scarcely have come into existence without Dhaka’s persistence and its creative diplomacy. Bangladesh has promoted projects of long distance connectivity and has drummed up multilateral support for development projects like new bridges and roads to bind the region closer.
India’s recent initiative to establish a rail link between Dhaka and Istanbul is in some respects an updating of an earlier Bangladeshi concept. Maybe this imaginative idea will receive a decisive boost from the meeting of the two Prime Ministers.
The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary.