Modi on big visit, but Dhaka eager for Virat

Published: June 6, 2015 - 17:51 Updated: June 6, 2015 - 18:14

Narendra Modi’s first visit to Dhaka and the Land Boundary Agreement evoke a tepid response from Bangladeshis

Afsan Chowdhury Dhaka

In a rare coincidence four of the most significant Indians are going to be in Bangladesh around the same time. One is Shreya Ghoshal, the Bengali-Indian singer who has been a super favourite since her Devdas days, later boosted by Chikni Chameli and other songs. Dhaka is eager to cheer her performance. The most anticipated visitor is Virat Kohli. He and his team play one Test and three ODIs and public expectations around the series are very high. For Indians, this is not a big deal but for Bangladeshis it is. Many see it as a grudge match, particularly after Bangladesh’s unceremonious exit from the World Cup which is blamed by most here on poor umpiring. Even the Bangladeshi Prime Minister got into the act and echoed the public sentiment and a fuming Mustafa Kamal, heading the International Cricket Council (ICC) when the Cup was on, resigned. He is also Bangladesh’s Planning Minister and a close ally of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. So cricket issues are uppermost.  

Also visiting is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While Modi will not get as much attention as Kohli and Co, it’s an important visit since it’s his first. The visit also gains significance because of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) which may not have got much attention in India but the party in power in Bangladesh sees it as a major achievement. Sheikh Hasina was accorded a massive public reception by a supporters’ group at which she was bestowed the title of Deshratna (jewel of the nation) though she hasn’t actually used it yet. But it does show how much the LBA means to her. The visit also comes at a time when she is at her strongest, far more powerful than her father ever was in his three-year rule.

There are three major areas of interest for both parties – trade, water and border issues, and containing of terrorism. 

The bilateral trade is significant at $6.9 billion in 2014-15, but it’s lopsided with Indian exports to Bangladesh worth $6.2 billion and imports worth $0.6 billion only. 

Sumit Mazumder, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), told The Times of India, “India-Bangladesh trade has potential to touch $10 billion by the year 2018. In order to reach this target, the two countries should aim at opening new land customs stations, harmonization and recognition of standards, pruning of negative lists, and banking and finance cooperation.”

The problem is that trans-border trade, political and bureaucratic bottlenecks, and non-tariff issues stand in the way.  

CII has suggested that “the northeastern states of India should be actively involved in planning and preparing transport linkages, which would also deepen India’s Act East Policy for greater engagement with ASEAN and East Asia”.

While this analysis will make sense to the trade lobby in India, the feeling in Bangladesh is that India can do much more to improve the balance of trade. Business with Bangladesh is not just about profit but also about bilateral politics. Major investment plans of Reliance Power and the Adani Group would see nearly $5 billion invested in Bangladesh. Reliance Power will set up a 3,000-MW power plant based on imported LNG at an investment of about $3 billion. The Adani Group will set up a 1,600-MW coal-fired plant. 

All this amounts to good news. But, for Bangladeshis, the main thorn in the side is water-sharing. The Teesta river agreement issue continues to drag on with no immediate signing in sight. The fourth Indian now in Bangladesh, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, is considered by many to be the least popular Indian here. And Modi has been able to portray her as the stumbling block in the treaty, making himself more acceptable to Bangladeshis while making life difficult for her.

Whether the LBA will have any real impact or not is yet to be seen but the political impact is not much. It’s gratifying to see the ratification   after 40-odd years but the popularity value of the deal has paled in comparison to the contentious Teesta issue. The economist and activist, Prof. Anu Mohammed of Jahangirnagar University, spoke for many disgruntled Bangladeshis when he said that, while corporate interests were being served in bilateral talks, a comprehensive national and international treaty covering all the issues, particularly natural resources sharing and protection of the environment, was being deliberately ignored.

The terrorism issue is now hogging a lot of headlines after the killing of several Bangladeshi bloggers by Islamic extremists. India has received a great deal of cooperation on battling terrorism and should be happy as it’s a common scourge for both countries. Under previous regimes, such as that of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), rebels of Northeast India found refuge in Bangladesh but the present Awami League government has put its foot down firmly and Bangladesh is no longer a sanctuary for them.

But cross-border insurgency is not just an Indo-Bangladesh issue. The emerging big player is China, keen to be recognised as the paramount regional power. Ultimately, this may be – though unstated – the most important part of the scenario. If India is perceived to be less sensitive to Bangladeshis’ feelings about equitable bilateral relations, China will gain greater leverage. And, no matter how strong India’s historical link with Bangladesh, Beijing will be able to call many shots in Dhaka. In its own interests, India will want to temper Bangladesh’s ties with China. Whether New Delhi is that savvy is another matter.

Meanwhile, Shreya and Virat are on most Bangladeshis’ minds.

Narendra Modi’s first visit to Dhaka and the Land Boundary Agreement evoke a tepid response from Bangladeshis

Afsan Chowdhury Dhaka 

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