Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 48-hour visit to Bangladesh in the midst of the Assembly elections in four states and a Union Territory had a pregnant economic connotation. This is quite apart from the ceremonial niceties that were exchanged by the Prime Minister in the company of his counterpart, Begum Hasina, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh and the centenary of its brainchild, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The occasion, therefore, was a chapter in South Asian history. While both leaders have unveiled the “roadmap for a shared future”, it is the pacts that they signed that were riveted to brasstacks. Chief among these was the inauguration of a new passenger train service, the Mitali Express, from New Jalpaiguri to Dhaka.
Connectivity has been given a boost not the least because this is the fourth train that symbolises the signal of intent on either side of the territorial divide, recalling the train from East Pakistan to Sealdah station and the steamer service with the delectable chicken curry served on board ~ both modes of transport in the pre-Partition days. Small wonder that India’s foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, told Begum Hasina that Mr Modi’s visit has lent “new energy and new pace” to bilateral relations.
The pacts that have been concluded envisage the development of a nuclear power plant, haats along the border, additional consignments of Covid vaccines, cooperation in space and in the sphere of artificial intelligence, and India’s participation in the first-ever air show in Bangladesh in 2022. No less critical were Mr Modi’s visits to the Mujib Memorial and the Matua Centre, the latter perhaps with an eye on the electoral potential of the class group in West Bengal.
As regards the Teesta, Begum Hasina evaded diplomatic niceties when she told her host rather bluntly that the decision on sharing the waters of the river was taken nine years ago and is yet to be implemented. Mr Modi has reiterated India’s “sincere commitment and continued efforts” to conclude this agreement in “consultation with the relevant stakeholders”.
Pre-eminently Mamata Banerjee who has been stoutly against sharing the Teesta water, primarily because it will impede agriculture in North Bengal, given the shallow depth of the river. Over time, therefore, the river has become an electoral issue. But remarkable indeed was the cooperation in matters of public health. With India gifting 1.2 million doses of Covid vaccine, Bangladesh now ranks as the largest foreign recipient of vaccines made in India.
Less easily sorted out was Dhaka’s request for what it calls a 1.3 km “Innocent Passage” which will facilitate the passage of the other country’s boats with restrictions that will be in place along the Padma river. While India pledged to consider the request, Mr Modi’s delegation made a robust pitch for completion of border fencing, beginning with the Tripura-Bangladesh sector.
The border remains ever so porous, with passports and visas reduced to irrelevance for hundreds of thousands who cross over amidst what this newspaper described in 1979 as “the quiet influx”.