Why Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Bangladesh was highly promising
In Bangladesh, it is very rare for observers with secular credentials and those leaning towards the right to sing the same tune. Yet, first, there was a hue and cry -- mostly from the pro-secular camp -- about Bangladesh’s apparent distance with India, backed by unfounded claims that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not meet the outgoing Indian high commissioner despite several requests.
It is now those more aligned with China in Bangladesh who are rejoicing at Bangladesh’s apparent snub to India, supposedly reflected by what was dubbed as a lacklustre visit by India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla. And, I can imagine some of those who would like Bangladesh’s future to be more aligned with India’s are equally disappointed.
However, both sides of the political spectrum would be wrong to underestimate the importance and depth of the Indian foreign secretary’s visit. Such immature conclusions are drawn mainly due to a lack of clear understanding of the dynamics of Bangladesh’s relations with India and China.
Other than the part of the border shared with Myanmar, Bangladesh is almost entirely encircled by India. Therefore, while it is natural for some of us to feel threatened by the presence of a country as large as India, the potential of friendly ties in areas such as trade and connectivity easily outweighs the unease surrounding the neighbouring country.
The previous government led by BNP clearly missed the equation because they did not have the best interest of the country. Influenced by a narrow and prejudiced mindset and rhetorical right-wing politics, they seriously harmed the prospect of a good relationship with India by threatening the latter’s security interests and torpedoing Indian business and trade offers. Such a hostile attitude benefitted neither Bangladesh nor India. But it did serve the purpose of Pakistan, which was more than happy to have a fellow anti-Indian country in the region.
However, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina decided to forge a strong relationship with India, she had Bangladesh’s interests in mind. She has turned our disadvantage into a foreign policy success by cultivating a close relationship with the country -- so much so that it is often dubbed the closest possible relationship between two neighbouring countries.
However, as Bangladesh’s foreign policy motto dictates, Bangladesh offers friendship to all and malice to none. As Bangladesh has set an ambitious target to become a developed country by 2041, it needs significant foreign investment to upgrade its infrastructures. Here comes China at the scene. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, the country has become more outward in its bid to transform its image from the world’s production hub to a service-based advanced economy.
And, naturally, Bangladesh’s potential and requirements have attracted the country’s attention. Two countries since then have developed a mutually beneficial economic relationship. And, as a close friend, India understands Bangladesh’s domestic priorities although it has quite an uneasy relationship with China.
Therefore, the first mistake that some observers made is that they portrayed the visit by the Indian foreign secretary as an effort to counteract China’s supposedly growing influence in Bangladesh.
Some tried to paint the visit as “hastily arranged” but the fact that both countries let go of stiff diplomatic protocol highlights the closeness between two friends, more so when a highly contagious disease was pervasive. Moreover, the fact that Shringla was the first foreign dignitary Hasina has met during the Covid pandemic underscores the importance she attaches to the relationship with India.
Some also spoke of the supposed “silence” about the meeting from both sides. However, contrary to the notion, both Bangladesh and India were pretty clear about what was discussed in meetings that Shringla partook. Bangladesh’s foreign ministry officials, including Shringla’s counterpart Masud Bin Momen, briefed the press. The Indian high commissioner in Dhaka, as well as the spokesperson of the Indian foreign ministry, spoke in detail about the meetings.
Shringla’s visit was fulfilling in itself in terms of its objectives, which did not focus on countering China or any of its projects in Bangladesh. In fact, the bilateral plate was so full that any other agenda did not make it to the meetings.
Unsurprisingly, the first priority for both countries was not to repel any third country but the very real pandemic in the world. India has offered Bangladesh the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University being produced by the country’s Serum Institute. Bangladesh has gladly accepted the offer.
Living up to the promise, Bangladesh’s Beximco Pharma and Serum have very quickly reached an agreement to bring the Oxford vaccine to Bangladesh on a priority basis. While Beximco will be the exclusive distributor of the vaccine in Bangladesh, the agreement does not restrict the Bangladesh government from acquiring the number of vaccines it needs from Serum.
The second major issue was about the Indian support for the Rohingya repatriation -- again it was also about Bangladesh. As India is set to enter the UN security council as a non-permanent member, the country’s changed stance in favour of Bangladesh is a huge deal, highlighting Bangladesh’s privileged position in Indian policy settings.
Third, Shringla conveyed his government’s intention to hasten the completion of development projects in Bangladesh -- again a Bangladesh-centric issue. India has also agreed to Bangladesh’s requests to draw up and finance more ambitious projects suited for Bangladesh’s high-end infrastructural needs.
Connectivity with India’s north-east region is strategically important for the country and, at the same time, economically beneficial for Bangladesh as well. Therefore, contrary to what was being said in the media, the warmth in relations between India and Bangladesh has remained the same as reaffirmed by Shringla’s visit.
Mohammad A Arafat is Professor of Management, Canadian University of Bangladesh, and Chairman, Suchinta Foundation.