Bolstering or balancing!

Bangla PM In Delhi

By Prof. (Dr.) D.K. Giri

(Secy Gen, Assn for Democratic Socialism)

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in Delhi last week on a two-day (21-22 June) official visit. She was earlier here on the 9 June at the oath-taking ceremony of the present government. To make another visit, that too official, in the same month perhaps signifies the importance accorded by Bangladesh to its relations with India. The other interpretation of her dash to Delhi in less than a fortnight is to balance her country’s relations with India vis-à-vis China. She is scheduled to be in Beijing in July. Given India’s sensitive ties with her neighbours and China’s attempt to penetrate into South Asia, it is in order that both the perspectives on her visit are examined.

Decidedly, India’s bilateralism with Bangladesh is by far the best of her relations with all South Asian countries.  The External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson talked in a regular media briefing about “celebrated bilateral partnership” between India and Bangladesh. He added, “The two leaders have met each other ten times since 2019 making unprecedented transformations in the relationship. Bangladesh has been one of the main beneficiaries of India’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’ in terms of grants and Line of Credit funding to different projects in the sectors of energy, finance and physical connectivity. The highlights of connectivity projects include Maitri Setu Bridge over Feni River in Tripura and the rail link between Chilahati-Haldibari. Bangladesh is the India’s largest development partner and the biggest trade partner in South Asia.

Prime Ministers Modi and Sheikh Hasina had wide ranging talks on 22 June to expand cooperation in multiple areas. The talks were followed by 10 agreements. The key pacts signed between both sides were forging strong ties in the digital domain and the other on green partnership. The focus has been on boosting trade and increasing connectivity. Prime Minister Modi said in a statement to media that, “today we have prepared a futuristic vision for cooperation in new areas. The youth of both the countries will benefit from the consensus reached on cooperation in areas such as green partnership, digital partnership, blue economy and space”.

Bangladesh Prime Minister expressed her satisfaction on a ‘fruitful visit’ to India. In her remarks in the joint press conference with Prime Minister Modi, she said, “India is our major neighbour, trusted friend and regional partner. Bangladesh greatly values our relations with India, which were born out of the War of Liberation in 1971”. She added a bit poignantly, “I recall with gratitude the contribution of the government and the people of India to Bangladesh’s independence while paying homage to the brave heroes of India who sacrificed their lives in 1971 war”. She paid a great tribute to India by stating that India was the only force in the world which left a country after helping in its liberation. She mentioned American troops of allied forces which were still staying in Japan and Russian troops in Germany.

This was the first bilateral state visit by a foreign head of government after the formation of a new government in Delhi following the Lok Sabha elections. Prime Minister Modi became the head of the government for the third consecutive term. Likewise, last January, Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister of her country for the fourth consecutive term. Both countries have been undergoing intense interaction in recent times. Back home, Hasina said in a press conference, that her visit opened many new avenues of cooperation for the socio-economic development of the people of both countries. She added that her discussion with her Indian counterpart focussed on defining the future course of action to ensure the establishment of ‘Smart Bangladesh’ and ‘Viksit Bharat’.

She also talked about the Teesta River project which has been somewhat a bone of contention between West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Chief Minister of Bengal Mamata Banerjee asserted that her government would like to be a part of any discussion on sharing of Teesta water. She expressed strong reservation over the Centre excluding her government from discussions with Bangladesh regarding Teesta water and Farakka Treaty. She underlined in her letter to Prime Minister Modi that Bengal has very close relationship with Bangladesh – geographically, culturally and economically. Yet she would not like the interest of people of West Bengal to be compromised.

Note that Bangladesh is planning to develop their side of the river by making new constructions funded by China. That raises many questions including the security risk. Bangladesh government maintains that they will be open to suitable proposals on Teesta river construction including a reservoir. Both India and China have given proposals for this mega project. When asked which side she would favour, Hasina said, “We maintain our friendships with countries based on the developmental needs of our country. When we receive a proposal, we consider factors such as its suitability for us, our capacity to repay any loans, the returns we will enjoy after project completion and above all, how it will benefit the people of our country”.

Note again that China has completed the physical survey on the project while India has offered to do a feasibility study for the implementation of the Teesta project. On the security risk, referred earlier, India has reservation over China’s involvement in a major project near Siliguri Corridor, a strategic spot known as the Chicken’s Neck. Bangladesh Foreign Ministry has tried to assuage India’s concerns and have said that Dhaka would, “Take into cognizance the geo-political issues in going ahead with the proposals. Several observers have pointed out that Chinese involvement in the project could complicate the India-Bangladesh dispute over the major common river.

Bangladesh has a long-standing issue over sharing of Teesta River water with India.  Hasina as the Prime Minister will be crucial in taking the decision on awarding the project to either China or India. Hasina has a friendly disposition to India with her personal links and those of her father, the founder of Bangladesh. She has hinted that it will be easy for Bangladesh if India does the Teesta project. She said, “In such case, we will not need to talk about Teesta water sharing always”. Hasina added that Bangladesh has issue with India over water sharing of 54 common rivers. And she hopefully added, “If there are problems, there are solutions as well”.

It is no secret that smaller countries in South Asia would like to exploit the tension between India and China to their benefit. India and China represent two contrasting political systems and radically different foreign and economic policies. Sri Lanka has tested the bitter pill by taking loan from China. Bangladesh has its own set of problems including Rohingyas refugees numbering about 1.4 million. Dhaka would want them to return. For that to happen, liveable conditions must exist in Myanmar. Dhaka may be looking at Beijing to give them a hand on repatriating Rohingyas. At the end of the day, it is Dhaka’s call whether to build bridges with Beijing and burn them with New Delhi. — INFA