Sheikh Hasina's India visit: Bilateral defence framework with Bangladesh likely; Teesta pact in the offing?

Last November, when the fledgling Bangladesh Navy took delivery of the first of two old Chinese-built submarines, officials in New Delhi's military establishment looked askance.

Subsequently, when a delegation of Bangladeshi academics and policy makers visited New Delhi at the invitation of an Indian think-tank, they were flustered after Indian scholars repeatedly quizzed them on the latest China-made acquisition.

The subtext in the questions: Was Bangladesh now firmly a bead in the Chinese "string of pearls", as the strategic lasso that Beijing is throwing around New Delhi is sometimes described.

But a senior Indian Navy officer had a deeper understanding of how waters in the Bay of Bengal may churn. The Indian Navy was in talks with the Bangladesh Navy that are now understood to be almost final. India has offered to host and train Bangladesh's submarine crews at its own facility in Visakhapatnam, the INS Satavahana.

File image of Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina. PTI

File image of Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina. PTI

Following the acquisition – not necessarily because of it – two Indian defence delegations visited Dhaka. The first comprised officers and bureaucrats. The second was led by the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar accompanied by seniors of the three armed forces. It was the first visit by an Indian defence minister to Bangladesh. During his visit, Parrikar had met Sheikh Hasina (Parrikar has since returned to Goa as chief minister. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley currently holds additional charge of the portfolio).

When the Bangladesh Prime Minister lands in New Delhi on Friday, it would be in the secure knowledge that a bilateral defence framework agreement would likely be one of the biggest takeaways of her visit.

The agreement would initially be effective for five years and may be renewed subsequently. In addition, New Delhi is likely to offer a soft line of credit to Dhaka to source defence materiel from India.

These would be among 17 Memoranda of Understanding that Indian and Bangladeshi officials have been discussing in the run-up to Sheikh Hasina's visit.

Among the other positives that India and Bangladesh are likely to be count are agreements of a train service between Calcutta and Khulna and an upgradation of the Calcutta-Dhaka Maitri Express as an air-conditioned service. A passenger shipping service has also been talked about.

A 6,500+ km gas pipeline that also involves Myanmar and joint exploration of the "Blue Economy" – fisheries and sea-bed resources – are also the fallout of India accepting in 2015 the verdict of an international arbitrator on the India-Bangladesh maritime boundary. Though India lost much of its claim in the dispute, it decided not to challenge the verdict – a development that United States is repeatedly highlighting as an illustration of how China might accept a similar process on its disputes in the South China Sea.

But for Hasina, as also for New Delhi, the biggest issue concerns the sharing of the waters of River Teesta and of inter-country rivers. New Delhi is committed to sharing the waters with Bangladesh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his visit to Dhaka two years back, re-stated the commitment made by his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. Both prime ministers have so far failed to bring West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on board.

Officials of the ministry of external affairs said on Thursday that it continues to be "work in progress". Mamata is likely to meet Hasina, with whom she has a personal connect, at a dinner hosted in Rashtrapati Bhavan by President Pranab Mukherjee. Modi is also expected to be present. Mukherjee, too, has a deep and long personal equation with Hasina. She will be staying in the presidential palace during her visit.

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Despite the history and gamut of personal equations, Hasina, however, will look to take back with her what she can sell to her people. Defence relations, however positive a spin you put on it, do not translate as immediate gains for the public, unless it is during hostilities.

When Hasina and her Awami League returned to power in 2014, it was through an election that was boycotted by the Opposition Bangladesh National Party. She persisted with the warm relations with India that she began in the earlier term, when Dhaka quietly facilitated the surrender or exile of militant leaders from India's North East, notably Arabindra Rajkhowa of the United Liberation Front of Asom.

This was at some cost among her electorate. In Bangladesh, extremist voices have been growing shriller since then. The Awami League with its secular credentials is alleged by the Jamat and the BNP of selling out to India, despite its dependence on Chinese military and logisitics support. Writers, many of them simply called 'bloggers', with liberal values have been systematically targeted. Some have been murdered brutally, often in public.

Despite this background in Bangladesh, Hasina is likely to tell Modi that Dhaka will continue its cooperation "on all aspects of security and radicalisation including Islamic terror", in the words of an MEA official.

This is where the West Bengal chief minister, in seeking to appeal to an altogether different constituency from the BJP's, becomes important to determine not just the federal structure in which New Delhi and Kolkata are framed. She also knows she holds the key to a bilateral neighbourhood relationship.

In two years or less, Hasina goes into another election. Only Mamata can probably give her a sliver of a chance if she were to agree to the formula for sharing river waters. But Mamata, too, has to be mindful of her own constituency in North Bengal.

Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 19:24 PM

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