The Teesta water sharing question aside, the background to Hasina’s visit could not be more encouraging.
During the last decade, healthy bi-lateral relations have grown spectacularly, thanks to the astute political stewardship in both countries.
Bilateral trade and business currently accounts for around $5.5 billion, benefiting both countries. True, Bangladesh exports over $550 million worth of goods to India, while it imports much more. But given the relative sizes and economic potential of the countries, this is natural.
Anti-India forces in Bangladesh make much of the large deficit, arguing that it impinges on Dhaka’s economic sovereignty. They suggest that Dhaka explore its options with other countries, largely meaning China. The fact is the trade deficit with China is, if anything, bigger.
China can afford more generous long-term credit and other help, compared to India. But such concessions come with invisible strings. China is not known for using many local workers in its projects abroad, nor to share any advanced technology. Ask Myanmar.
The catalogue of concrete results accruing from good bilateral relations in recent years has been impressive.
Consider this cursory list of gains for the two countries.
For Bangladesh: A long-term $1 billion loan on favourable terms from India, along with technological help in implementing and upgrading Bangladesh’s railway infrastructure and port facilities, strengthening the power sector, and a total acceptance by India of all the maritime claims made by Bangladesh regarding the use of its energy-rich territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal.
Furthermore, there is growing collaboration and cooperation in defence, with the goal of eliminating the threat of terrorism in both countries. There are exchange programmes and joint exercises. While India would like to upgrade existing ties through a defence treaty, Bangladesh prefers to go slower, launching the exercise in small steps, in a more phased manner.
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Bangladesh has also gained in terms of territory, following the admittedly long-delayed implementation of the land border agreement (LBA).
For India: Bangladesh has fully cooperated in rooting out separatist Indian insurgent organisations like Ulfa, the NDFB and so on, from its soil. It has dismantled most of their illegal camps, allowed to flourish during the BNP’s tenure, in recent times.
Under the Awami League dispensation, Dhaka and Delhi are on the same page combating fundamentalist forces like the HuJi, the JMB, Harkat-ul-Ansar and other organisations bent on violent extremism. There is now effective sharing of intelligence and border policing, unlike in the past.
Thanks to the provisions of a recent protocol worked out between the two countries and the BBIN (Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal) Vehicular Traffic Agreement, seamless cross-border movement of goods and people between the two countries has become possible five decades and more after the partition of 1947.
India has sent foodstuff and engineering equipment to Tripura using Bangladesh’s rivers and roads. Bangladesh has sent its cargo to Kolkata, Delhi and other parts of India by road and occasionally, to Nepal, using Indian territory.
It does not need a rocket scientist to appreciate that only the growth of such cooperation will help both countries meet their Millennium Development Goals.
The benefits are obvious: If these steps open up the 160 million strong Bangladeshi economy to India, Dhaka can also access the 1.2 billion strong Indian economy in return.
Therefore India, as the bigger country, must make sure that Bangladeshi sensitivities are not hurt by any suggestion of being short-changed diplomatically or economically during the coming prime ministerial round of talks.