May 25, 2024, 2:03 pm


Harsh V Pant and Sohini Bose

Published:
2024-04-21 04:36:07 BdST

The Modi-Hasina legacy


Geographical contiguity needs to be accompanied with complementarities in governance for regional development.

In South Asia, this has been showcased by India and Bangladesh, with the heads of government of both countries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina respectively, naming their partnership as “a model for bilateral relations for the entire region.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government came to power in India in 2014 under PM Modi and completed its second tenure in power in April 2024.

During this period, the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had been in power in Bangladesh. During this decade, India-Bangladesh ties have not only witnessed dramatic growth but have also expanded across multiple domains, thereby responding adequately to the needs of the time.

As the Hasina government secured its fifth consecutive term in power following the January 2024 elections in Bangladesh and India engages in its 18th Lok Sabha election, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the leadership dynamic that has influenced the Delhi-Dhaka relationship over the past decade.

Priority partners

Sharing a land border of approximately 4,097 km, the fifth longest in the world, India and Bangladesh are natural partners, making development cooperation imperative between the two countries.

Policy convergences between India’s “Neighbourhood First Policy,” the “Look East Policy” which evolved into the “Act East Policy” under the Modi government in 2014, and Bangladesh’s prioritization of its ties with India as per its constitutional dictum of “friendship to all, malice towards none,” has worked well to foster collaborative initiatives.

Currently, India is Bangladesh’s second-largest trading partner, among its top 10 sources of foreign direct investments, and its third-largest source of bilateral foreign assistance. In turn, Bangladesh is also India’s largest trading partner in South Asia and is geopolitically situated to strengthen India’s engagements with its eastern neighbourhood.

Beyond commerce and developmental assistance, the India-Bangladesh partnership has manifested particularly across three vital domains -- connectivity, energy, and health -- in recent years.

Connectivity

In 1947, the Radcliffe line carved East Pakistan, or present-day Bangladesh, out of India’s eastern territories. Naturally, existing connectivity links between the two halves of Bengal remained non-functional for a long time, until efforts began to be made to revive these channels which gained momentum in the last decade.

Complementing the Maitree Express running between Kolkata (India) and Dhaka (Bangladesh) since 2008, two other inter-country passenger train services have been launched; the Bandhan Express in 2017, between Kolkata and Khulna (Bangladesh), and the Mitali Express in 2021, between New Jalpaiguri (India) and Dhaka. In 2023, the Akhaura-Agartala cross-border rail link was launched to reduce the traveling time and distance between India’s Northeast and Kolkata by providing connectivity through Bangladesh, bypassing India’s narrow, and congested Siliguri Corridor.

Land connectivity aside, PM Hasina’s offer of the usage of Bangladesh’s Chittagong and Mongla seaports to India for the development of its Northeastern states of Assam and Tripura has much potential to develop this land-locked region. These ports are in much closer geographic proximity to the Northeast compared to India’s Kolkata port, through which most of its cargo is currently routed. The Northeast also stands to gain from Nepal and Bhutan’s usage of Bangladesh’s seaports as the transit territory for the passage of their cargo. In 2015, India and Bangladesh also developed the Protocol Routes for Transit and Trade, capitalizing on the plethora of inland waterways in the Bengal delta to promote inter-country connectivity. Such initiatives have not only enhanced commerce but also people-to-people linkages.

Energy

In the purview of energy, India-Bangladesh collaboration has also grown significantly, with the India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline launched in 2023 to reduce the cost of diesel supply to Bangladesh in the face of major power cuts faced by the latter.

The two countries are also jointly developing the Maitree Thermal Power Plant in Khulna, Bangladesh, to improve power supply in Bangladesh.

Under the Indo-Russian deal to undertake atomic energy projects in third countries, India is also helping build the first nuclear power station in Rooppur, Bangladesh, making the latter a part of the nuclear club.

Health

While connectivity and energy have been constant features of India-Bangladesh cooperation, the pandemic years brought out another dimension in the bilateral relationship.

In its “Vaccine Maitri” initiative, India prioritized the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to Bangladesh, making it the first and largest recipient of its assistance program.

Dhaka has also responded with an urgent supply of Remdesivir injections and PPE kits to India as the second wave engulfed the latter. The reciprocity in the critical pandemic years tested the resolve of the India-Bangladesh partnership. As such, India is one of the primary destinations of medical tourism from Bangladesh, accounting for almost 54% of such visitors.

Challenges and the way forward

The bilateral partnership between the South Asian neighbours in critical sectors highlights their mutual dependence. Nonetheless, some issues of contention continue to exist between the two countries such as the pending Teesta water-sharing treaty, the resolution of which has been long due not for want of intent but because the issue has become embroiled in federal politics within India, making it difficult to reach an international agreement with Bangladesh.

However, the Chinese efforts to build a multipurpose barrage near Bangladesh’s side of the Teesta, brings the “dragon” within 100 km of India’s border, making it a geopolitical concern. This is in tandem with increasing Chinese engagements in Bangladesh, and the recent anti-India sentiments brewing in the country post the 2024 Bangladesh election.

These are some of the challenges that the new Indian government will have to address. If Modi returns, as the present trends indicate, it will also ensure continuity in the Modi-Hasina legacy to strengthen the Delhi-Dhaka partnership, adding greater substance to the “Golden Chapter” in their bilateral relationship.

Harsh V Pant is Professor at King’s College London and Vice President for Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. Sohini Bose is an Associate Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, at ORF.

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