Foreign Affairs: Modi, a big hit in Dhaka
He played well to the galleries but there is no great change in bilateral ties and it is to be seen how the treaties are implemented
Afsan Chowdhury Dhaka
The Narendra Modi visit has been a public relations victory on all fronts with the media providing extensive positive coverage. No nasty rallies, protest marches or unkind remarks. Khaleda Zia, the leader of the major ‘anti-Indian’ opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), met Modi to complain about “lack of democracy” but the meeting oozed bonhomie. Modi’s speech at Dhaka University was an unqualified success with thousands cheering as he spoke. He is clearly a leader who knows how to sway the crowd. No Indian leader, barring Indira Gandhi in 1972, can come close to Modi in popularity. A precise counterfoil to the reserved Manmohan Singh, he is the best man to steer India’s diplomatic chariot.
As Modi departed and Dhaka’s nightly TV talk shows went into full gear, most people felt the visit was “successful”. Contentious issues were put aside and Modi was praised for his rhetorical skills, for sensing the pulse of the audience and swaying them with the right choice of words.
But what were the concrete achievements of the trip?
Twenty-two treaties and MoUs were signed, headed by the Land Boundary Agreement (a symbolically significant but dated issue). The other agreements include a $2 billion line of credit, research agreements between Indian and Bangladeshi institutions, and anti-trafficking protocols. Meanwhile, both Reliance and the Adani Group have signed deals to set up power plants in Bangladesh which promise to fill the gap in the power generation sector.
Major concerns, however, remain in bilateral relations. Three main concerns are: Trade enhancement, on which India is most keen; Teesta and other rivers’ management which is of major interest to Bangladesh; and, of course, insurgency and terrorism management that concerns both countries. Of the treaties and MoUs signed, covering a gamut of issues, the main point in future will not be the scope of interest but the level of implementation.
Modi stressed to a cheering crowd of youngsters at the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre that the two nations are equals and destined to grow together.
“This is an inter-dependent world and no nation, however powerful, can grow alone,” he stressed.
“The era of expansionism is over, that of inter-dependence has dawned and we understand the spirit of the times.” Was he saying that India was different earlier? He, however, hinted that he would need to build consensus within India before the agreements could be pushed through, somewhat on the lines of the Land Boundary Agreement. “We are a big country, we have so many states, and we are a democracy, so it takes time to build consensus on issues but I can promise you we will settle the water-sharing issues,” he said.
He pitched for regional connectivity, referred to the BBIN (Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal) vision as an alternative to a SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement, which could not happen because of Pakistan’s objections. Modi started off his speech in broken Bengali and ended with Jibananda Das’ “Abar Ashibo Phire” to remind Bangladeshis that he will return for a hearty adda (chat) on a boat ride with young Bangladeshis on the Padma. He finished his speech with “Jai Bangla, Jai Hind” while bowing to the audience with folded hands. The crowd loved it.
While bilateral trade between India and Bangladesh is significant at $6.9 billion in 2014-15, it’s lopsided with Indian exports to Bangladesh at $6.2 billion and imports at $0.6 billion only. This is making a section of the Bangladesh trading lobby unhappy. “I don’t think Indians have the mental frame to trade with a smaller neighbour like us. It’s overbearing. The gap didn’t balloon to what it is now because both countries had common interests. We are not really cooperating; we are not left with business options. Indians are saying that the trade level will rise to $10 billion by 2018 but it will be $9 billion from India and maybe a billion from Bangladesh.”
For Bangladesh it is the Teesta issue that matters most and the signing of a treaty is not yet in sight. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee extended her visit and had an unscheduled meeting with Modi from which she emerged smiling but no move to sign the treaty was seen. Analysts have said that she has an election to take care of in 2016 and signing a treaty which may be seen as adversely affecting India is hardly what she needs now. Modi has also been able to portray her as the stumbling block in the treaty signing while making himself more acceptable to Bangladeshis.
Water-sharing is not just an environmental or political issue but an emotional one as well, given Farakka history. The economist and activist, Prof. Anu Mohammed of Jahangirnagar University spoke for many disgruntled Bangladeshis when he said that, while corporate interests are being served through bilateral talks, a comprehensive national and international agreement covering all the issues on natural resource sharing and protection of the environment is being deliberately ignored by both parties. The Rampal plant in the Sunderbans which India is partnering is causing great ire. Two major incidents which led to oil and chemical spill in the forest have angered many and in future may become a diplomatic embarrassment for both sides.
The terrorism issue is now hogging a lot of headlines after the killing of several Bangladeshi bloggers by Islamic extremists. India has got a lot of cooperation on this and should be happy, particularly as it’s a common scourge for both. During previous regimes such as the BNP’s, India’s Northeastern rebels found refuge in Bangladesh but the present Awami League government has put its foot down and Bangladesh is no longer a sanctuary for them.
But what has India done in return? India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, has called Bangladesh “India’s most important neighbour” and in this statement may lie the key to the relatively improving ties between the two. While this has always been the case with Bangladesh, the situation may now be changing with India too. Security and threat perceptions are more important than ever before in policy formulation and the threats, economic and security, may be coming from China more than other countries.
China is serious about ensuring that it is recognised as the paramount regional power and much flows from that. If India is perceived to be less sensitive about what Bangladeshis feel about equitable bilateral relations, China may gain greater leverage. And no matter how strong India’s link is with Bangladesh, China may call many shots, something Delhi doesn’t want. India will want to make Bangladesh less friendly towards China in its own interest. It’s with this policy platform, based on a fresh and friendly way of interacting, that Modi came and won the initiative.
Anyone who can whitewash cricket and celebrity stars from the media simply with crowd power in just a day will always be cheered. Modi was no exception.