Sheikh Hasina in India: Ahead of 2018 polls, Bangladesh PM's visit is a crucial one

India is planning a red carpet welcome for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina following her arrival on a four-day state visit. Bangladesh is one of India’s close friends in the neighbourhood, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to make sure that this equation remains intact, more so with China hovering in the wings with its cheque book diplomacy.

The Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that has always dubbed her an 'Indian stooge' will be watching the visit with interest, and will pounce on her for any perceived concession. With national elections slated for 2018, the BNP is looking for any weakness to exploit in its attack on the Awami League. The party’s closeness to India has always been exploited during elections.

Already, knowing that the Teesta water sharing issue is hanging fire, thanks to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s intransigence, BNP secretary-general Mirza Fakrul Islam has already f fired the first salvo a couple of weeks earlier, maintaining that without finalising the Teesta agreement the prime minister’s trip will be meaningless. Mamata will be in the capital for the luncheon organised by Modi for Hasina. There is hope that Teesta water-sharing will also be discussed. And while no one is expecting a deal to be signed, there is hope for some forward movement.

President Pranab Mukherjee, who has excellent ties with both Hasina and Mamata, is also hoping to play a role in persuading the chief minister.

Narendra Modi greets Sheikh Hasina on Friday. Twitter @narendramodi

Narendra Modi greets Sheikh Hasina on Friday. Twitter @narendramodi

"Teesta water-sharing is a work-in-progress. It is a challenge we will continue to pursue," Sripriya Ranganathan , joint secretary for Bangladesh and Myanmar in the MEA, said at a news briefing on Thursday. India is hoping to make Hasina’s trip a major success. Around 20 agreements, including a defence framework pact, the announcement of additional train and bus routes, an MoU on supply of high-speed diesel, cyber security and upgradation of existing projects.

An agreement on nuclear energy, including the setting up of small nuclear power plants in Bangladesh is also on the cards. India and Bangladesh already have excellent anti-terror cooperation with intelligence agencies of both countries working closely together.

The details of the defence agreement are not known but according to news reports from Dhaka, India wanted a 25-year long agreement that the Hasina government was not prepared to sign. Ranganathan however denied this, saying such agreements are generally signed for a five-year period and are reviewed by both sides for further extension if need be. Apart from the framework MoU on defence, the other agreement will be sourcing defence suppliers from India.

This means Delhi will begin supplying equipment to Bangladesh. Defence research and development will also be one part of the component. But those opposed to the Awami League are uncomfortable with a defence agreement. "There is deep resentment about the possibility of a defence pact, because it does not make sense for Bangladesh. For a smaller neighbour, the thought that there will be a Big Brother looking over your shoulder at all times isn't welcome," Fazal Kamal, a prominent Bangladeshi analyst said.

India scrambled to get the defence agreement going, after Bangladesh bought two refurbished submarines from China at the competitive price of $24 billion. Red flags were raised in India about China’s growing footprint in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Chinese president Xi Jinping, during his visit to Dhaka last October, extended a $24 billion loan to Bangladesh. All this falls in with New Delhi’s concerns about China spreading its wings and getting all its neighbours to fall in line with the 'One Belt One Road' vision of the Chinese president. During Xi’s visit, relations between China and Bangladesh were elevated from "comprehensive partnership cooperation" to "strategic partnership cooperation".

"Hasina’s visit is an important one. With Xi already showering her with gifts, India will extend another line of credit, but naturally on a smaller scale. But there will be a fresh line of credit and hopefully with Mamata flying in to meet the visiting dignitary, there will be some forward movement on the Teesta, although the deal will not be signed and sealed," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

India is aware that with national elections next year, Hasina cannot go back emptyhanded. The Awami League hopes India will play a part in ensuring that elections will be free and fair. The Opposition and many BNP supporters in the country believe that India’s support to the Awami League helped it to ride roughshod over the Opposition and do whatever it wanted to remain in power. The BNP and its allies had boycotted the 2013 elections, because the Awami League had refused to put in place a caretaker government. The voter turnout was at a dismal three to five percent, and most of the candidates were elected unopposed as no candidate could be found to contest.

"Keeping in mind what happened last time, the expectation is that New Delhi will encourage the Awami League to work toward an inclusive political process," Kamal said.

Hasina’s ceremonial welcome and talks with Modi will take place on Saturday.

Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 14:32 PM

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