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Have India-Bangladesh relations hit the rocks?

India-Bangladesh bilateral relations are at a precarious stage and at mercy of domestic political wrangling in both polls-bound countries.

Bangladesh ruling party Awami League and its leader Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina primarily want just two things from India: (i) Indian parliament ratifies the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) signed by the two governments and ratified by the Bangladesh parliament; (ii) the Teesta River water sharing accord.

The UPA government finds itself between a rock and a hard place on both. It is highly unlikely that India’s best friend in Bangladesh – Sheikh Hasina – is obliged by India on these two counts which matter most to the political fortunes of Hasina’s party.

Sonia Gandhi and Sheikh Hasina. AFP.

Sonia Gandhi and Sheikh Hasina. AFP.

Both India and Bangladesh are poll-bound and are due to have general elections – Bangladesh by January 2014 and India by May 2014. In such a scenario, the two governments need to fall back upon Plan B, considering that it is outside the pale of their respective jurisdiction and powers to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat.

Hasina is likely to visit India in September this year to build up on her last visit to India in January 2010, which was quite a historic visit. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had visited Bangladesh in September 2011.

In both these visits the LBA and Teesta accords were on top of the bilateral agenda and yet both these accords eluded the two governments.

The situation has not changed at all as of today. The reason: both these accords are West Bengal-locked and Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal and chief of the ruling Trinamool Congress party remains as much of a nay-sayer today to these pacts as she was then. Moreover, the BJP is siding with Mamata and just waiting to rock the UPA boat on both the counts.

This ‘reality bites’ picture is as much clear to the Awami league as it is to the UPA. But then it is the former rather than the latter which has its political future so closely strung on these two proposed Indo-Bangladesh pacts. If the two pacts do not become the done deals within the next few months, it is Hasina who faces a political rout in the forthcoming general elections, rather than Manmohan Singh.

But then the two governments have invested huge political capital in the two proposed pacts; and India risks losing Bangladesh for the next five years if the UPA government is unable to walk its talk on the proposed LBA and Teesta accord.

India’s Bangladesh policy formulators know within the hearts of their heart that Bagladesh is too important a contiguous neighbour to be lost to the vagaries of politics. India’s longest land boundary is with Bangladesh, running into about 4100 kms. Moreover, it is a universally-acknowledged fact here in India and elsewhere that India’s northeast is Bangladesh-locked.

Therefore, the two governments must find an amicable resolution to the pending issues and ensure that no matter what political fortunes befall the two respective ruling parties in the coming forthcoming general elections – Awami Lague in Bangladesh and the Congress in India – the Indo-Bangladesh relations do not derail.

It is against this backdrop that the just-concluded India visit of Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni gains traction. Dipu Moni floated a strategic balloon during her India visit.

On 25 July, while delivering the 4th RK Mishra Memorial Lecture at Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, she called for a Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) Basin Regime, going beyond the boundaries of Bangladesh and India, to address the common realities of our region. She said: “a shared future Basin regime would recognise the divergent needs and priorities of each State on both the existing and emerging principles of international law”.

Moni has shown a strategic vision which is at once wise and clever. It is wise because it is the vision of the long-term Indo-Bangladesh relations that the two sides must have on their radar screens for the immediate future.

It is clever because with one stroke she has sought to balance the two dominating factors in Bangladesh’s foreign policy today: India and China.

China stands to benefit from her GBM Basin idea both politically and economically. The GBM Basin is a leaf out of the Chinese initiative of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang strongly pitched to India during his talks with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi on 19 June.

Dipu Moni said the GBM Basin regime would go beyond the boundaries of India and Bangladesh and include all other basin sovereign states, namely Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and China, apart from the Bay of Bengal itself.

Moreover, the Basin approach would also enable the states concerned create food banks, buffer stocks of commodities and natural resources, strengthen information and technology data bases and have a positive impact on the global campaign on the issue of climate change.

If statistics are taken into account, it is India and China, in that order that stand to benefit from her GBM proposal.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basin is a transboundary river basin with a total area of just over 1.7 million square km, distributed between India (64 percent), China (18 percent), Nepal (9 percent), Bangladesh (7 percent) and Bhutan (3 percent), as per the figures of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

The GBM river system is the third largest freshwater outlet to the world’s oceans, being exceeded only by the Amazon and the Congo River systems. The GBM river basin contains the largest number of the world’s poor in any one region. “The population is increasing steadily, population density is very high in a large part of the basin, and, unless the current development trends are broken, poverty will become even more pervasive,” says FAO.

Against this backdrop, it will be in the best interest of India and the region to implement Dipu Moni’s suggestions about the GBM Basin.

The best-case scenario for Indo-Bangladesh relations would be that the Indian parliament ratifies the LBA and India and Bangladesh sign the Teesta accord, while a concerted and conscious effort is made to implement the GBM Basin proposal. But it may not pan out that way, considering the current Indian political scenario.

The worst-case scenario is that all this ends with a whimper and Begum Khaleda Zia upstages Sheikh Hasina in the upcoming general elections.

This is the stuff political thrillers are made of! The Bangladesh clock is ticking for India.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com

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