Foreign policy has been a very significant aspect of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's agenda in the first 100 days. Right from inviting all the heads of SAARC nations on his coronation day, to his ongoing Japan visit, Modi has checked all the right boxes to position India as a powerful country keen to establish a good relationship with all friendly nations. But India's changing relationship with its eastern neighbour Bangladesh has significantly gone under the media radar amidst Modi's big ticket visits to other countries.
When Modi invited the heads of SAARC nations to his swearing-in ceremony, one significant exclusion from the dignitaries who were present was Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The Speaker of Bangladesh was present on her behalf. While the official reason given was that Hasina had prior commitments, many attributed her absence to the less than pleasant vibes that Modi exuded towards Bangladesh in the run up to his election campaign. While campaigning in Assam and West Bengal, Modi repeatedly raked up the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Opposition parties accused him of trying to play communal politics by invoking the issue. But in the last 100 days, the Modi government's policy decisions vis-a vis Bangladesh has been grounded in practical considerations and devoid of any hyperventilating nationalism or Hindutva ideology.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj made her first bilateral tour as Foreign Minister to Bangladesh. According to Bangladesh Foreign Minister A H Mahmood Ali, illegal migration wasn't in the agenda of talks when Swaraj met him. But this doesn't mean the government is not serious about the issue, just that it chose to be pragmatic and decided to start with less contentious issues.
Bangladesh is extremely crucial to India for geo-political considerations. There have been allegations of the country being used as a safe haven by different anti-India elements. While Bangladesh authorities have steadfastly denied such reports, it is no secret that ULFA, ISI and other organisations have used the country to foment trouble in India. The relationship between the two countries has gone through its fair share of ups and down over the years. The Teesta water agreement and Land Boundary Agreement continue to be sore points between the countries. The Manmohan Singh government failed to ratify either of the two deals primarily due to steadfast opposition from Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee. So when the Modi government came to power, many assumed that the relationship would go further downhill. But thankfully, this hasn't been the case.
During her Bangladesh tour, Sushma Swaraj said that they were trying to get bipartisan support for the Teesta water agreement, even confirming that Mamata Banerjee was positive about it. The Land Border Agreement to redraw the border, aimed at making the porous border between the two countries much more manageable, will need constitutional amendment. The bill is currently in the Rajya Sabha. Incidentally, the Modi government, or at least a part of it is in favour of considerable relaxation of visa norms between the two countries. Just before Swaraj's visit, the Ministry of External Affairs floated the idea of allowing Bangladeshis below the age of 18 and above the age of 65 to visit India without visa. Though this was rejected by the Home Ministry, Swaraj inked a deal for the relaxation of visa norms for a certain category of travelers. India has also decided to give additional 100 megawatt power to Bangladesh from the gas-based power project at Palatana in Tripura. Swaraj also announced a grant of Rs 60 crore for implementation of various Small Development Projects in Bangladesh in the current financial year. "We have shed blood together… our destinies are linked, Swaraj said, adding that “India is always there for Bangladesh.”
However, many believe that the government's overtures towards Bangladesh has more to do with ground realities than great love for them. China is close on the heels, willing to exert its soft power in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. So the Modi government is looking to be alert and keep “friendly” nations by our side. Also, there has always been a latent anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh, especially among hardliners. Bangladesh is also going through a churning with a new generation awake and conscious of its rights after the Shahbag movement. They are also considerably liberal in their mindset and open to accept India as a friend. It is the right time for India to reach out to this aspiring class as a benevolent power and not merely act in a brusque manner with them.
The Teesta agreement if and when inked, will be a huge vote of confidence of India's willingness to maintain close relations with Bangladesh. Mamata Banerjee and her party is currently facing the heat from the CBI controversy of the Sharada scam. Hence they may be considerably subdued in their opposition if the Modi government pushes hard for it. On its part, Bangladesh also has to keep its share of the deal. It can't let its border be used for terrorist activities, irrespective of who is in power. Bangladesh has proposed to share rice with all the North Eastern states of India and has even offered to share their port with them for mutual benefit. The process of establishing good relations has just started and the path is fraught with many possible roadblocks in the way. It will take firm commitment from both sides to reach the desired destination. The acche din in the India-Bangladesh relationship is yet to come, but the future looks quite bright.