External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has returned from a successful visit to Bangladesh. In line with the Modi government's focus on strengthening ties with South Asian neighbours, this visit was timely and will have a positive impact on Dhaka-Delhi ties, especially as Swaraj chose Bangladesh for her first stand-alone foreign visit since assuming office. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well to promptly accept her invitation to visit Bangladesh, hoping that a 'new era' of cooperation would be fostered across South Asia to ignite the collective surge for prosperity. Though Swaraj could only assure her Bangladeshi counterparts of an early ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement and signing of an interim agreement on Teesta water sharing, she moved forward with a five-year multiple-entry visa for Bangladeshi nationals below 13 and above 65 as well as starting a Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati bus service on an experimental basis.
New Delhi has had two problems in Bangladesh. It is seen as particularly close to the Hasina government by large sections of Bangladesh's population despite its earlier attempts to reach out to Khaleda Zia. On the other hand, pro-India forces have felt neglected given New Delhi's inability to strengthen Hasina's hands. Though India has repeatedly signalled that it remains committed to an early solution on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta and the long-pending boundary issue, it has not been able to generate sufficient political consensus on these issues. New Delhi has not been a great partner to Dhaka so far and by not signing the deals that matter most to Dhaka, it has alienated pro-India forces in the country.
India did make some initial strong overtures to the Hasina government. Pranab Mukherjee had visited Dhaka in 2010 as then finance minister to mark the signing of a $1-billion loan deal, the largest line of credit received by Bangladesh under a single agreement. India's Exim Bank had signed the line of credit agreement with Bangladesh's economic relations division and the loan was to be used to develop railways and communications infrastructure. The deal carried 1.75 per cent annual interest and would be repayable in 20 years, including a five-year grace period. It was offered during Hasina's visit to India in January 2010. This was followed by the two countries signing a 35-year electricity transmission deal under which India will be exporting up to 500MW power to Bangladesh. Dhaka has also signed a $1.7 billion pact with the National Thermal Power Corporation for the construction of two coal-fired plants in southern Bangladesh.
Despite the initiatives, India failed to build on the momentum provided by this visit with its failure to implement two major agreements — finalisation of land boundary demarcation and the sharing of the waters of the Teesta. Bangladesh has been rightly upset at the slow pace of their implementation. Hasina has taken great political risk to put momentum back into bilateral ties. But there has been no serious attempt on India's part to settle outstanding issues.
Bureaucratic inertia and lack of political will have prevented many deals from being followed through. Dhaka is seeking response to its demand for removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi products. India has failed to reciprocate Hasina's overtures. The BNP has used the India-Bangladesh bonhomie under Hasina to attack the government for toeing India's line. Bilateral ties had reached their lowest ebb during the 2001-06 tenure of the BNP government.
India has failed to capitalise on the propitious political circumstances in Bangladesh, damaging its credibility even further. Friends are as temporary as enemies in international politics. Instead, it is a State's national interests that determine its foreign policy. In case of India and Bangladesh, these interests have been diverging for some years, making the bilateral relationship susceptible to domestic political narratives.
India is the crux around which Bangladeshi parties define their foreign policy agenda. This shouldn't be a surprise given India's size and geographic linkages. Over the years political parties opposing the Awami League (AL) have tended to define themselves in opposition to India, in effect portraying AL as India's "stooge". Also, radical Islamic groups have tried to buttress their own "Islamic identities" by attacking India.
Ever since she came to power in December 2008, Hasina has faced challenges from right-wing parties and fundamentalist outfits like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, which enjoy Pakistan's support. These groups are united in undermining efforts to improve ties with New Delhi. The greatest challenge that Hasina overcame in her first year was the mutiny by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles that erupted in February 2009. It soon became clear the mutineers were being instigated by supporters of the opposition led by the BNP and others connected to the Jamaat-e-Islami. India supported Hasina's crackdown on the mutineers by sealing its borders and forcing back mutineers attempting to cross over.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka in September 2011 and was all set to sign the Teesta pact. But West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made sure his plan derailed at the last minute, damaging India's credibility greatly. Singh ultimately managed to sign the land boundary pact that demarcates territorial sovereignty along the 4,000km Indo-Bangladesh frontier. But even in this case, where Bangladesh has ratified the pact, India has failed to move forward because of the need for a constitutional amendment.
The political dispensation in New Delhi should recognise the dangers of playing party politics with India's foreign and security policy. India is witnessing rising turmoil all around its borders and, therefore, a stable, moderate Bangladesh is in its long-term interests. Constructive Indo-Bangladesh ties can be a major stabilising factor for the south Asian region as a whole. It can't afford to ignore Dhaka. As the forces of moderation and extremism battle it out in Bangladesh, India has a crucial stake in the outcome. It can only be hoped that the momentum generated by the external affairs minister to Dhaka will not be lost and Delhi will effectively leverage the goodwill in Dhaka towards the new Modi government.
The author teaches at King's College, London