Neighbourhood Diplomacy: Dhaka, India’s Only Best Friend?

Neighbourhood Diplomacy: Dhaka, India’s Only Best Friend?

India’s policymakers need also to retrospect and see what steps they need to take to expand this spirit of bonhomie beyond Bangladesh

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, June 23, 2024, 10:21 PM IST
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PM Narendra Modi with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina | X

When Sheikh Hasina jetted down to Delhi last week, her second trip to the heat-seared capital of India in one month, to have a tête á tête with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi many were left wondering what could be so important that the two leaders had to hold a summit so soon. After all the NDA 3.0 was still settling in and its plans for the next 125 days was still a work in progress.

Obviously state visits are planned many months before and every word in a joint communique or a memorandum of understanding signed during such a visit critiqued by an army of diplomats weeks ahead of any meeting.

Sheikh Hasina’s trip too was a planned one, penned by South Bloc and Bangladesh’s Segunbagicha-situated foreign ministry to showcase the close ties between the two neighbours and India’s one bright spot in neighbourhood diplomacy.

The two big takeaways from the visit — a promise to help better conserve and manage the waters of the Teesta river, an agreement over which has eluded the two nations because of an intransigent stand taken by West Bengal’s fiery chief minister Mamata Banerjee, and more road, rail and energy connectivity — were obviously signed with an eye on China.

China had earlier offered to fund the project which involves dredging the river which flows from Bhutan via North Bengal into Bangladesh, to make it navigable besides, building jetties, ports, and roads.

New Delhi alarmed by the possibility of Chinese presence close to the chicken’s neck corridor which links mainland India to the northeast, asked Bangladesh to reconsider the Chinese proposal in favour of an Indian counter offer.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India ahead of a trip to Beijing was thus all about assuring Delhi that if there is one bright spot left where its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy was working it was in the corridors of power in Dhaka.

Since Dr Manmohan Singh’s advent as prime minister, India has been trying to fashion a neighbourhood policy, similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Good neighbour’ policy for Latin America, which could bring South Asia closer and promote peace and economic ties between the countries which make up the Indian sub-continent.

While relations with Pakistan are frozen in time and space with charges of terror export against Islamabad, Nepal has been veering towards the Chinese orbit and squabbling with India over a map which shows bits and pieces of Kumaon as part of the former Hindu kingdom. Bhutan, an Indian protectorate, has been striking off on its own in its anxious quest to not antagonise a rising China and is currently busy negotiating its border with Beijing.

Maldives, ever since the island nation saw a change in government last year, has been the ‘naughty boy’. And except for the Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu appearing on stage with Prime Minister Modi during his swearing-in ceremony, has taken remarkably pro-Chinese and anti-Indian decisions including asking India to take back the few dozen soldiers posted there and cancelling several strategic contracts with India.

Sri Lanka, caught in a Chinese debt trap over expensive projects it signed up for with Beijing has recently announced that China would help “restructure” its loans and also develop more infrastructure on the island. A sure sign that Colombo was wily-nilly being drawn into an even closer embrace by China.

The circumstances are such that India has only Dhaka to fall back on in the neighbourhood as a ‘good friend’. The first signs of an opening up with Bangladesh, inimical towards India since the killing of its founder Sheikh Mujib, came during the military-backed caretaker government’s rule in 2007-2009 and then flowered after Sheikh Hasina, Mujib’s daughter, stormed back to power.

Since then Dhaka has been India’s greatest ally in its attempt to integrate the region through a chain of roads, railways, ports, and energy grids. Cooperation in handing over India’s troublesome northeastern rebels, Islamist terror modules and exchange of enclaves in each other’s territory followed, carving out a strong bedrock for the relationship.

Not that there are no dark clouds or challenges on the horizon in this Dhaka-New Delhi bromance. Just as Maldives saw a controversial ‘India Out’ campaign during its elections last year, Bangladesh also witnessed a campaign of a similar nature orchestrated by the opposition earlier this year, alarming friends of India.

The riverine nation whose per capita income has risen ten-fold since 1980 to about US $ 2,700, depends on foreign trade to propel its growth but faces the possibility of its duty-free access to many markets ending as it graduates out of the least developed country status two years from now.

India can and should give it guaranteed and better access to its vast marketplace through a new comprehensive trade treaty that continues with duty-free market access, brings down non-tariff barriers to Bangladesh’s exports and allows investment, which till now is highly regulated. This would be the way forward for the relationship to continue flourishing.

Ensuring a more relaxed visa regime and the smooth exports of food such as onion and garlic, which are essentials for that nation,without disruptions by seasonal bans, should also be part of the ‘good neighbour’ doctrine that India follows in the days ahead.

However, India’s policymakers need also to retrospect and see what steps they need to take to expand this spirit of bonhomie beyond Bangladesh.

When Prime Minister Modi sent out invites to his South Asian counterparts, Pakistan was the sole exception. Perhaps it’s time to tone down the rhetoric on a “muscular” foreign policy and try and trade peace for economic benefits to a near-bankrupt neighbour.

Beside the obvious benefits from expanded trade, it would be to India’s advantage to woo Islamabad away from its ‘best friend’ China, especially as it is engaged in a new great game with Beijing for economic and strategic influence in the Indian Ocean region.

In fact, less rhetoric, greater sensitivity towards smaller neighbours, more trade and connectivity and generous offers in sorting out differences which ignores small pin-pricks and looks at the larger picture, could be the way forward to mend fences with capitals all around India and thwart Beijing from making further inroads into the region.

The writer is former head of PTI’s eastern region network

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