GP Insights # 452, 20 December 2020
On 17 December, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi concluded a virtual meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina, thereby attempting to boost the country's 'Neighbourhood First' policy. "To strengthen relations with Bangladesh has been a priority since the first day," said Modi at the meeting.
Both the leaders jointly restored a railway link by inaugurating the trans-boundary line between Haldibari in India and Chilahati in Bangladesh. It is the fifth pre-1965 railway link between the two countries that has been made operational again. A stamp commemorating the birth centenary of Bangladesh's father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was also released. Modi and Hasina also jointly inaugurated a digital exhibition on Mujibur Rahman and Mahatma Gandhi to celebrate legacies of both leaders.
During the meeting, a press statement released stated that India and Bangladesh had signed seven agreements in the areas of hydrocarbons, agriculture, textiles and community development, during the summit. Hasina, in her address, made strong reference to the Teesta agreement and urged India to expedite the conclusion of the river sharing framework.
What is the background?
First, resetting ties with Bangladesh. The virtual meeting breaks a period of lull in the bilateral relationship that was marked by anti-Modi protests, cancellations and bureaucratic reshuffles. Bangladesh declared 2020 as 'Mujib Borsho' and India had hoped to use this opportunity to strengthen ties with Hasina. However, Modi's visit to Dhaka in August 2020 stood cancelled coinciding with protests in Dhaka over its handling of the Delhi riots. In December 2019, Bangladesh cancelled their Foreign and Home Ministers' visit to India amid speculations that Awami League was unhappy at the Indian leadership's repeated references to the Bangladeshi migrant/infiltrators in debates over the citizenship act. The reset started with Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla's visit to Dhaka in August 2020 and the subsequent appointment of a new High Commissioner to Dhaka. This meeting now sets the trajectory for Modi's visit to Dhaka in March 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Liberation war.
Second, connectivity and health diplomacy as major takeaways. Both the countries continued with their tradition of publishing joint communique and connectivity remained the major outcome. The Chilahati-Haldibari rail link will help improve connectivity between Bangladesh and Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. The rail link was originally part of the broad-gauge main route that connected Kolkata and Siliguri. The restored trans-border rail link will initially facilitate the movement of goods cargo and later aid passenger movement. While India requested Bangladesh to have at least one land port, Bangladesh proposed that its trucks avail the Feni Bridge, once completed, for transportation of goods from Chittagong port to the North East of India. India also used the COVID-19 situation to indulge its health diplomacy with Modi assuring that vaccines would be made available to Bangladesh.
Third, a larger boost to the 'Neighbourhood First' policy. 2020 marks a period of restraints and resets in India's larger 'Neighbourhood First' policy. After a strained relation with Nepal over Lipulekh and Kalapani, India's foreign secretary made a quick visit to call on Nepal's Prime Minister Oli. The visit has set the stage for an equal response from Nepal foreign minister who is set to visit India in 2021. Similarly, India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited and called on Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and its defence secretary in November. The visit came after the Sri Lankan election and aimed at building a bridge with the Rajapaksas who have traditionally aligned with China in their foreign policy. Also, India's Foreign Secretary in November called on Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih to take stock of India's neighbourhood policy. The virtual meeting follows this larger trajectory of a flurry of diplomatic activities by India.
What does it mean?
The meeting adds new momentum to the bilateral relation, especially how India will direct its neighbourhood policies responding to the post-pandemic challenges. India has tactfully chosen the celebration of the Liberation War to strengthen its ties by revoking sentiments rooted in history.
The 2021 visit by Modi will serve as an important marker. It comes in the background of the state elections in West Bengal, the federal state where the change of power to Modi's BJP is much anticipated. The state's current leader Mamata Banerjee also remains an ardent critic of the Teesta river water agreement, a thorn in India's bilateral relation with Bangladesh. While the connectivity push in this meeting also pushes India's larger BIMSTEC and BBIN policies, several challenges remain in terms of expediting the road and port constructions such as the Asia trilateral highway or the inland waterways.