Written by Joyeeta Bhattacharjee.
Bangladesh can be counted as one of the major foreign policy achievements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India shares its longest land boundary and numerous socio-cultural and historical ties with Bangladesh, and these dominate the relationship. Peaceful resolution of the boundary dispute was the high point in the bilateral relationship and stands as a landmark of Modi’s foreign policy. Modi’s policy towards Bangladesh, a part of his neighbourhood first policy, reflect India’s desire for strengthening ties with its neighbours by harnessing cooperation.
Prime Minister Modi, known for actively pursuing foreign relations with an aim of uplifting India as a leader globally holds a keen interest in improving India’s relationship with her neighbours. His intention was demonstrated when he invited the heads of states of all SAARC countries to his oath-taking ceremony. Neighbours responded positively to Modi’s call with the leaders of the SAARC nations including Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attending the ceremony. The warm welcome that he received during his visits to neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka in the first three years of his tenure is a testimony to India’s neighbours reciprocating her desire for greater cooperation.
Bangladesh is of significant strategic significance to India for various reasons including thwarting the security challenges arising due to terrorism, ensuring connectivity to the northeast and further to the ASEAN region.
Of late though, the success of his neighbourhood first policy has come into question. India’s relationship with Pakistan is now at a new low. The relationship between the two countries has soured due to cross border terrorism. Similarly, India’s relationship with Nepal is tense due to the issue of the blockade.
However its relationship with Bangladesh is better. The bilateral relationship has been consistent over the past three years of Modi’s tenure. The visit of Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina in March 2017 to reciprocate PM Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in 2015 demonstrates the stability of the relationship.
Critics might argue that, more than Modi, the credit for this strong relationship lies with the government in Bangladesh. Unlike its predecessor, the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government in Bangladesh favours a good relationship with India. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has prioritized her country’s relationship with India. Her victory in the 2014 parliamentary election helped maintain the momentum and added to Modi’s advantage.
Modi inherited a rich legacy from former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The major areas of focus during Singh’s tenure included security cooperation, economic/developmental partnership and cooperation in terms of connectivity. Singh during his visit to Bangladesh in 2011 provided $800 million as a line of credit for the development of rail and road infrastructure in Bangladesh. Again, security cooperation started to improve under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government resulting in the arrests of many of the top leaders of insurgent groups of India’s north-eastern region who were hiding in Bangladesh.
Despite these plus points, Modi had to deal with the baggage of the UPA government. These included the non-conclusion of the water sharing agreement of the Teesta River and the land boundary agreement signed in 2011 whose functionality was pending due to the delay in ratification of the agreement in the Indian Parliament. India’s delay in delivering on its the promises led to a feeling of resentment in Bangladesh which was further deepened with the frequent reference made of illegal migration from Bangladesh during the 2014 parliamentary election campaign led by Modi. This has led leaders in Bangladesh to express scepticism over the future of the relationship.
Despite the references to illegal migration, Modi deserves credit for sustaining the momentum of the bilateral relationship. Modi has realised that winning the hearts and minds of the people of Bangladesh is crucial. His prioritisation of ratifying the land boundary agreement by the Indian Parliament in 2015 is a case in point. Bangladesh is of significant strategic significance to India for various reasons including thwarting the security challenges arising due to terrorism, ensuring connectivity to the northeast and further to the ASEAN region. Bangladesh’s importance has significantly increased as Pakistan has slowly been isolated. Bangladesh now plays important roles in sub-regional platforms such as BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal cooperation) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).
The rising influence of China in India’s neighbourhood has also made India conscious of its relationship with Bangladesh. Despite the close relationship with India, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is pursuing an independent foreign policy beneficial for her country’s interests and has developed a close relationship with China; economically and militarily. This is evidenced by the fact that Bangladesh is a participating in China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.
The test of Modi’s policy will lie in the timely solution of bilateral issues such as the resolution of the water sharing agreement. Considering the complexities of the water rights between the union and state, the resolution of the Teesta issue will not be smooth. The issue sheds light on rising trend of India’s states being able to influence foreign policy matters. The balance between domestic compulsions and foreign policy priorities will emerge as a major challenge for Modi’s foreign policy. The future of the bilateral relationship will depend on the way PM Modi deals with them.
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views and not those of the organization. She tweets @joyebch. Image Credit: CC by High Commission of India, Dhaka.