To borrow an urban phrase, Bangladesh is turning out to be our BFF (Best Friend Forever) along with Bhutan. India-Bangladesh relations have seen a steady high ever since Sheikh Hasina has been at the helm of affairs. She rebooted ties with India after a disastrous spell under Khalida Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)
Neither Modi nor Dr Manmohan Singh in 2011, both vegetarians, savoured the Bengali delicacy, Illish or Hilsa, during their Prime Ministerial visits to Dhaka, but the warm hug that Sheikh Hasina and Mamata Bannerji shared leads one to hope that the two ladies will be able to tango over illish. Pic/PTI
Sheikh Hasina wears her warm ties with India on her sleeve. Despite facing a lot of criticism from her adversaries and being called an Indian stooge, Sheikh Hasina has not wavered. Just as her father before her. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman owed his life to Indian forces that kept him safe against all odds. But he and his family were massacred by radical elements in the Bangladesh army. Daughters Hasina and Rehana who were in Germany when the assassination happened, took refuge in India.
The Awami League has historical ties with India, having been in the forefront of the liberation struggle and upholding liberal and democratic values for which the father of the nation Bongabandhu Mujib laid down his life. For the better part of the past 20 years Sheikh Hasina and her betenoire Khaleda Zia have been at the helm of Bangladeshi politics.
Sheikh Hasina has always held the view that a strong partnership with India is in Bangladesh’s interest, despite the waxing and waning in India’s interest towards Bangladesh. She had an excellent working relationship with the UPA government, partly because of the strong ties she has with the Gandhi family.
Success has many fathers. The claim over the successful passage of the Land Boundary Agreement is one such case. The BJP cussedly opposed it when it was in the opposition, now claims it as a feather in the cap. The Congress that went about it with characteristic lethargy during its reign now claim that it is their baby. The fact is that it can be traced back to the time of Mountbatten, Jinnah and Nehru and the partition of India….and then on to the creation of Bangladesh and so on and so forth.
The fact is that it is indeed historic and significant that two countries in the Indian subcontinent have been able to resolve a land and a maritime boundary agreement without international arbitration or military conflict. A primer of sorts to India’s neighbours that countries can sort out sensitive sovereignty laden issues, provided there is trust and patience in the process of dialogue and negotiation.
Then there are other plusses to this deal: tens of thousands of stateless people can now opt to be in either Bangladesh or India, border management will be easier and trade will increase at the border because of clarity of demarcation.
Bangladesh will receive $2 billion line of credit (LOC) from India. This must not be seen as aid or charity. Under the LOC a minimum of 75% of goods and services needs to be of Indian origin and must be procured from India, which in turn will give a fillip to the manufacturing sector in India. Bangladesh in turn, offered to establish Special Economic Zones (SEZ) for Indian companies besides allowing Life Insurance Corporation to start operation in the country. There are a gamut of issues in which Bangladesh and India have enhanced cooperation, especially in busting militancy in the north-east Indian states.
There is still that elephant in the room…Teesta. The two countries share waters from over 50 rivers but it is Teesta over which sentiments run high and expectations, low. But the warm hug that Sheikh Hasina and Mamata Bannerji shared leads one to hope that the two ladies will be able to tango over illish.
Illish or Hilsa is as important to Bangalis as their language. And the hilsa from the Padma river is supposed to be the best, something that Bengalis from West Bengal lament as being one of the losses of partition. But neither Mr Modi nor Dr Manmohan Singh in 2011, both vegetarians, savoured this delicacy during their Prime Ministerial visits to Dhaka. Food diplomacy is not a strong point for either of them.
India is now not shrinking from its responsibility as the largest and most powerful democracy in the region. India is propelling its soft power via mechanisms like yoga day, its economic prowess via aid and trade, and diplomacy via constant and enhanced engagement. It remains to be seen how long and with what degree of buoyancy Mr Modi and his team can keep pushing the envelope.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash