Setting the tone for future
India and Bangladesh today are far closer and friendly neighbors than they were ever before since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The just-concluded visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh (June 6-7) has contributed immensely to the India-Bangladesh bonhomie.
In fact the great irony is that the South Asian neighbors, which share a 4,096-km-long border are actually neck deep in a strategic partnership, though neither side is claiming so or flaunting this status. Indeed still waters run deep.
China and Pakistan are the two powers most affected by increase of India’s influence in Bangladesh. Pakistan has witnessed a steady downturn of its influence in Bangladesh ever since Begum Khaleda Zia’s tenure ended about a decade ago.
But the real strategic game now being played in Bangladesh is between China and India. Much like everywhere else China has significantly expanded its strategic footprints in Bangladesh.
China has made deep strategic forays into such Bangladeshi areas as ports, highways, power, defense and trade and economy; so much so that Chinese investments and presence are to be seen virtually in every single crucial area of importance.
But Modi is trying to reverse this trend. Or else how does one explain Modi’s unexpected decision of announcing a line of credit of $2 billion to Bangladesh, the largest-ever Indian loan to any country?
Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina also flagged off two bus services connecting many Indian and Bangladeshi cities and discussed many new bus and rail services, which may start soon.
Bangladesh has given land transit rights to India far more liberally than ever before. More bus and rail links are being explored. The two sides were connected by rail till 1965 when Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan and known as East Pakistan. The rail links are still there though in baby shape because of non-use for last half a century.
The two sides are engaged in serious efforts to restore rail links. Going by the political will from highest quarters on both sides it is only a matter of time that a greater integration of peoples and economies takes place.
Another highly commendable initiative is in the works, which is a potential game changer in the bilateral context of India and Bangladesh. This pertains to waterways.
Considering the fact that 1,000-kilometer of the 4096-km-long India-Bangladesh boundary is riverine, the scope of cooperation between the two sides is immense and, ironically, only the sky is the limit for linkages in bilateral waters.
The implication of this is plain and simple in strategic terms. India is trying to catch up with China in the Bangladeshi strategic space.
China has invested hugely in Bangladesh and given goose bumps to India just as Chinese maneuvres had done of late in India’s neighboring countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Maldives.
That’s why India came with an exclusive and first-ever statement on South China Sea during top-level engagement with the Obama administration. That’s why India offered a billion dollar line of credit to Mongolia during Modi’s maiden visit to Mongolia.
There is one more important foreign policy objective of Modi during his just-concluded Bangladesh. It is to lay the first bricks of the sub-regional architecture called BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) as this writer had written about in these columns recently. India has consciously embarked on the BBIN route during Modi’s Bangladesh visit. A plethora of done deals and many more in the works point to India’s keen desire to prepare a strategic and political architecture at the sub-regional level to keep China and Pakistan at bay.
Bangladesh has responded positively to this Indian initiative during PM Modi's Bangladesh visit. It remains to be seen if the other B and N of BBIN — Bhutan and Nepal — follow suit. Watch this space.