Mainstream, VOL LIII No 24 New Delhi June 6, 2015
Modi’s Date with Dhaka
Saturday 6 June 2015, by
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keeping up his hectic schedule of undertaking official visits to foreign countries in pursuit of India’s interests in its bilateral relationship with these countries. This time, he is embarking upon a journey to Bangladesh from June 5 to 7, 2015. Going by the stakes involved in our relations with this country, Bangladesh should have been his first port of call. Among the South Asian countries we have had very close relations with Bangladesh even in the midst of the vicissitudes of political changes there and in spite of the fact that for the much larger part of its existence as a sovereign entity, it has been ruled by regimes which have not been particularly friendly to India. Such is the importance of India for Bangladesh, and vice versa, that even these regimes maintained a reasonably flourishing relations with India. Ability to deal with India has been regarded as the litmus test of the success of every government that has come to power in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s special importance for India lies, among others, in the fact that it holds the key to the integration of the North-Eastern part of our country with the national mainstream. For, by far the biggest obstacle to integration has been the denial by Bangladesh of transit facilities for the seamless movement of goods across the Bangladesh territory to this region of India. This has also come in the way of our effort to link, through the shortest land route, with the South-East and East Asian countries, with most of which we have free trade or comprehensive economic cooperation agreements. These countries have grown at a very fast pace in recent years, and so has our trade with them. We are also a part of the value chains of important manufactured goods traded by countries in this region. Bangladesh itself is currently one of the largest markets in the world for our manufactured products. We have also a great stake in the maintenance and consolidation of the pluralistic society of Bangladesh for the sake of holding our own pluralistic society together.
The moment for building an enduring multifaceted relationship with Bangladesh has never been more propitious since the creation of Bangladesh than during the last five-and-a- half years’ regime under Sheikh Hasina. Soon after coming to power, the Bangladesh Prime Minister, with one courageous stroke of states-manship, took care of one of our most important security concerns arising from the activities of the ULFA and similar other groups of militants operating from the Bangladesh territory. She clamped down on the activities of the militants and arrested and handed over to India their important leaders. In addition, during her visit to India in January 2010, she announced a number of path-breaking measures of connecti-vity which, taken together, amounted to granting to India the fullest possible transit facilities through the Bangladesh territory to the North-Eastern region.
Prime Minister Modi’s visits to foreign countries have generally been accompanied by massive publicity drives in order to extract out of them the maximum political advantage in order to enhance his own stature in the country and project his image as a world leader. This is indeed a political compulsion for any leader placed in his position. The main difference with Prime Minister Modi is that he has done it more systematically and energetically than the leaders preceding him as the Prime Minister. In the process, the achievements of his visits have been exaggerated and the strategic designs behind them have been oversold, as was the case with his swing around the Indian Ocean countries recently.
But there is no doubt that his visits have also been well-planned and well-prepared and concrete results have come out of each of them. To give only a few examples, by his visit to the United States in September 2014 and by persuading President Obama to be the chief guest at India’s last Republic Day function, Modi has no doubt brought the United States closer to India, which should be a principal objective of the foreign policy of any government that is in power in Delhi. A unique achievement of his diplomacy with the United States was the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, of January 25, 2015. In this, the two countries affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, and resolved to undertake wider measures of cooperation in the regional context. From Russia, Modi extracted a long-term commitment to bolster India’s energy security. With China, he highlighted the faultlines of the relations without creating a chasm in them and imparted a new momentum to India’s engagement with China in the economic field. He also managed to get a Joint Statement on Climate Change issued with China on May 15, 2015, aligning the latter’s position with that of India and other developing countries. It is a significant move in the context of the forthcoming Paris Conference on Climate Change. From this Conference India wants to preserve adequate carbon space to achieve an average annual growth rate of seven per cent or above over the next two decades. It is important to have China on our side on this critical issue.
What should be the Prime Minister’s strategic objective during his visit to Bangladesh? His most important objective should be unimpeded transit through the Bangladesh territory to the North-Eastern part of India. This requires the operationalisation of the connectivity measures announced by Sheikh Hasina during her 2010 visit to India. This has been withheld because of the failure of the then Prime Minister of India to deliver on the Land Boundary and Teesta agreements during his visit to Bangladesh in September 2011. The main reason for this was the fractious nature of India’s domestic politics in which the BJP, then in the Opposition, played a negative role. Another reason was the inept manner in which the Central Government at that time handled the task of bringing the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, on board on the Teesta Agreement.
There is no doubt that the unanimous passage of the Constitutional Amendment (100th) Bill by the Indian Parliament on May 7, 2015 was a major step forward for implementing the Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement of 1974. With the implementation of the 1974 Agreement, a major source of friction between the two countries would be eliminated. This would enhance their mutual confidence. It would also facilitate effective cross-border cooperation, particularly for curbing the evils of terrorism, human trafficking and smuggling. The exchange of enclaves, which is envisaged in the Agreement, would bring to an end the sufferings of the people residing there. They would become citizens of the country in which the enclaves are located and would, thus, be entitled to all the rights of citizenship. The extension to and enforcement of the laws of the respective countries in the enclaves would hopefully rid them of much of the corruption and crime that have come to prevail there. It would also be a major factor promoting the development of this long neglected no man’s territorial space.
However, in spite of these obvious benefits, the passage of the Amendment Bill through Parliament cannot be regarded as a great achievement of Indian democracy or a breakthrough in the relations between India and Bangladesh. India should have ratified the 1974 Agreement long time ago as was done by Bangladesh. This would have brought to an end the sufferings and tensions referred to above some 40 years ago. There is no case for gloating over something which has been delayed for such a long time. It is still a debatable point whether adjustment of territory as a result of border demarcation and the exchange of enclaves in a manner which only legalises the de facto position, should have been regarded as acqui-sition or transfer of territory, calling for an amendment to Schedule-1 of the Indian Consti-tution. It is a pity that the Government of India did not make an attempt to convince the judiciary that such adjustments do not amount to the whittling down of the territorial integrity of India. Besides, the adoption of the Constitu-tional Amendment is no concession to Bangla-desh, as it creates a win-win situation for both the countries.
Thus, whether we have given back to Sheikh Hasina even a fraction of what she conceded in January 2010 still remains a moot question. There is also little doubt that she needs concessions in other areas in order to justify the implemen-tation of the connectivity measures announced by her. The fact that she has welcomed the passage of the Amendment Bill and has not raised any controversial issue on the eve of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, is a tribute to her statesmanship. However, this is no guarantee that her detractors from the main Opposition Party, that is, the BNP, and from amongst intellectuals and journalists will not raise controversial issues during Modi’s visit. As a result of this, in the absence of what Bangladesh regards as the legitimate payback by India, Sheikh Hasina may not be able to initiate, during the visit, measures for operationa-lising her commitments on connectivity, without which the main objective of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh will remain unfulfilled.
The announcement during the visit of India’s acceptance of the Teesta Agreement informally agreed between the negotiators of the two countries, would have been an adequate quid pro quo. The last minute withdrawal by India from the agreement has become a huge negative issue in Bangladesh. This sentiment of hurt of the people of Bangladesh needs to be assuaged to make progress in other areas. However, indications are that in spite of Mamata Banerjee having agreed to join the delegation to Dhaka led by the Prime Minister, the Teesta Agreement is unlikely to be clinched on account of the continued opposition of the West Bengal Government, which is insisting on amendments to it and further discussion for this purpose. But if the issues settled in the Agreement are re-opened, discussions on them can go on indefinitely.
The only effective quid pro quo that India can offer for the implementation of the connectivity measures by Bangladesh is an announcement by Modi in Dhaka of a commitment of making adequate resources available to Bangladesh for the development of its transport infrastructure and for taking up other projects. Newspaper reports indicate that the Prime Minister may offer a sum of two billion dollars to Bangladesh for this and other purposes. But this is not going to be adequate. If India is to use the multi-model transport routes and services of Bangla-desh for the passage of its goods to the North- East and beyond, without adversely affecting the movement of its own goods and people, the minimum amount required to be invested, say, over a period of the next five years, should be approximately 10 billion dollars. It will also be necessary for both the countries to adopt all necessary measures to ensure that investments of this magnitude are actually made during the stipulated period. It should be noted that this order of investment in the infrastructure sector will trigger ancillary activities which will lead to an increase in both employment and growth in the economy of Bangladesh.
Since the new government has come to power, India taking initiative for sub-regional coope-ration, which excludes Pakistan, has become the buzz word. The argument is that since Pakistan is effectively coming in the way of regional cooperation within the framework of SAARC, as was evident by its refusal to sign at the last SAARC Summit in Kathmandu the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement, India should explore the possibility of sub-regional cooperation sans Pakistan. A concrete suggestion in this connection is our signing a Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement, instead of the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement which has been long under consideration.
Recently, a trilateral group has been set up consisting of Bangladesh, India and Bhutan on connectivity and transit, which has held meetings for exploratory discussion. A Joint Working Group has also been set up under the BBIN initiative to review the existing transport links in the sub-region constituted by these countries, and explore the possibility of developing new links for connecting these countries. These are laudable initiatives. But it should be realised that on account of the extremely poor status of infrastructure in and between the BBIN countries, a huge amount of investment will be required to make this sub-regional grouping a success. As other member-countries suffer from paucity of funds, almost the entire resources for this purpose will have to be committed by India. Moreover, in the very nature of things, agreement among these four countries on the routes to be taken up for connectivity will be much more difficult than bilaterally between India and each of these countries. It is, therefore, much more practical for India to undertake ambitious bilateral projects with Bangladesh than seek to identify such projects and reach agreement on them in the BBIN sub-regional grouping. Besides, Nepal and Bhutan are in no position to give India access to its North-Eastern region or to South-East and East Asia. This is another factor underlining the overwhelming im-portance of our bilateral relationship with Bangladesh. We should take a hard look at the possibilities and problems of sub-regional coope-ration between countries characterised by extreme asymmetry. In any event, it will be short-sighted and, perhaps, of little benefit if a sub-regional initiative is seen as a part of an attempt to exclude Pakistan.
Side by side or as part of the endeavour to deliver the Teesta Agreement to Bangladesh in its currently negotiated or revised form, India should work out with Bangladesh a new approach and framework for dealing with the river water problem. Such an approach will call for a move away from distribution and towards an inte-grated management and development of the waters of the common rivers in a wider framework. In view of the looming scarcity of water worldwide and particularly in India and Bangladesh, the issue of the augmentation of the flows of the common rivers and collaborative management of water resources in a compre-hensive sense of the term, should be accorded equal, if not higher, priority than distribution of water. In this connection, it is important to take into account the impact of climate change which is influencing floods, drought, sea level, rainfall and salinity. A collaborative, integrated and sustainable management of the water resources of the common rivers of the two countries will call for robust institutions. This underlines the importance of empowering the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission to make it truly autonomous and capable of taking up sophisticated hydrological research work.
The author, who was the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh for several years, is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently the President, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.