Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina won a landslide victory in Bangladesh’s parliamentary polls, marking her third straight term in office. Indian Prime Minister Modi was the first foreign leader to extend his congratulations to Hasina, signifying how this is very good news for India.
India’s relationship with the Awami League, a major political party in Bangladesh, is old and cordial. Back in 1970s India has assisted the Awami League’s struggle to free East Pakistan from West Pakistan and establish the independent country of Bangladesh. Post liberation, the Awami League under Mujibur Rahman strengthened Indo-Bangladesh ties. However, by 1973 the honeymoon period between the two nations came to an end and various concerns began to crop up; the major contentions between the nations being national boundary issues, dispute over enclaves, water sharing problem and illegal migration.
Events transpiring in Bangladesh fall within India’s interest. Being one of its neighbours, Bangladesh is important to India for India’s security, trade, water sharing, connectivity and culture. Bangladesh also forms an important country for India to implement its Act East Policy. Hence, maintaining cordial relations with the neighbour is of grave strategic significance to India. History has suggested that relationship between the nations sees progress whenever the Awami League is in power. For instance, in 2015 the two countries were finally able to resolve the boundary issue under the Land Boundary Agreement and saw the exchanging of 162 enclaves.
Whilst India obviously realises the importance of maintaining good relationships with Bangaldesh, it also needs to put its foot forward to assist its neighbour as the need arises.
Bangladesh is presently the largest recipient of Indian aid with it committing nearly $9 million as credit. India also has to look into other matters, particularly the Rohingya crisis of which India’s reaction has so far not been very satisfactory. India might not be able to afford the sort of financial aid a country like China can sign off on, but money is not the only factor in diplomacy. With respect to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, India’s foreign policy has to be smart.
Security concerns form another major area with India sharing a 4096 km of porous border with Bangladesh. India and Bangladesh have to work together to curb transnational terrorism and rising militancy near the borders and in India’s North-eastern states. Under Hasina’s rule, insurgency in the North-east declined considerably because of her strict program on militancy on Bangaldeshi soil. In 2015, Bangladesh handed over the United Liberation Front of Assam’s General Secretary Anup Chetai to India. In 2018, Hasina said that she would never permit any anti-India activities on her soil.
India and Bangladesh share 52 rivers. Sheikh Hasina has previously indicated willingness to resolve the water sharing conflict, especially the Teesta river treaty. However, internal disputes and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banarjee’s opposition put it off.
Considering the failure of SAARC to integrate the South Asian countries, India can follow up on Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to further development. Bangladesh is an important ally to ensure the success of BIMSTEC; Bangladesh has since 2014 hosted the secretariat for the group in its capital Dhaka. In September 2018, MILEX-18, the first field training military exercise under the banner of BIMSTEC was carried out. This is a right step in defence diplomacy and counter terrorism initiatives.
Connectivity is another chief matter to be dealt with. India is striving to boost its relations with South East Asian countries. Bangladesh is paramount to ensure this connectivity between India and ASEAN and East Asian countries. Various connectivity initiatives like railway, buses and roadways have been initiated. These transport routes also help India transfer goods to the North East at a lower cost; if not for Bangladesh one will have to travel through the Chicken’s Neck region to reach Northeast India which increases distance and time.
Countering China is a pressing concern for India and Bangladesh, and their union can be that of strategic support. China is increasing its geopolitical influence in the region and the string of pearls around India is strengthening. India’s other neighbours have visibly began to lean towards China. Pakistan and China have initiated the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Sri Lanka has leased the strategic Hambantota Port to China. Nepal, Maldives and Myanmar are also subtly changing sides. This makes Bangladesh all the more unique and the special relationship India shares with Hasina can be the focus of further bolstering it.
India can most definitely rejoice in Sheikh Hasina’s victory, nevertheless India mustn’t forget relationships take maintenance which is all the more crucial with respect to Bangladesh. Hasina has so far been a friend to India and has acted on her words; India must return the goodwill without delay.