Strategic rivalry between India and Pakistan has now taken a new sub-regional route within SAARC (South Asian Cooperation for Regional Cooperation). The new sub-regional platform within SAARC is known as BBIN, an acronym for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.
India’s thrust is to reinvigorate cooperation among the four BBIN countries and forge connectivity of all kinds and put in place a seamless mechanism of sub-regional connectivity, bypassing Pakistan.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his 36-hour-long maiden visit to Bangladesh on June 6, the BBIN route of forging connectivity will be on top of his agenda. During the last SAARC summit at Kathmandu last year, Modi had made it clear that India would no longer allow Pakistan to torpedo efforts aimed at integrating South Asian nations by allowing transit rights to one another and have an elaborate web of bus and rail connectivity.
The 30-year-old SAARC has done precious little in this context. Modi had flagged important areas of SAARC potential in his speech at the Kathmandu summit. Some of the points made by Modi are listed below.
Less than five percent of the region’s global trade takes place among SAARC nations. Even at this modest level, less than 10 percent of the region’s internal trade takes place under SAARC Free Trade Area.
Indian companies are investing billions abroad, but less than 1 percent flows into SAARC region.
It is still harder to travel within SAARC region than to Bangkok or Singapore and more expensive to speak to each other.
The South Asian region and the world have seen that SAARC has failed to take off in past three decades because of acute political differences and animosity between India and Pakistan. There is nothing to suggest that this paradigm is going to change one bit in foreseeable future.
In fact, SAARC is headed for another phase of wrangling and dissensions as China is increasing pressure on SAARC nations to make it a full-fledged member of the eight-nation regional grouping. India has resisted the Chinese attempts tooth and nail by contending that SAARC is a regional body and its character is defined by the region — and arguably China is not a South Asian nation.
India is well aware of the fact that it cannot prevent China’s entry into SAARC as a full-fledged member for long, particularly because Pakistan is vehemently pushing China’s case and other powers like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal too are batting on behalf of China. Informatively, China currently has an observer status in SAARC.
Modi will be pushing the BBIN concept with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during his upcoming visit. Giving each other land transit rights and creating a new network of bus, rail and waterways routes will be the core objective of Modi when he holds official talks with Hasina.
The two leaders will be jointly flagging off two new bus services: Shillong-Dhaka via Guwahati service and Kolkata to Dhaka via Agartala, which will inevitably go a long way in boosting people-to-people contacts between the two countries which share a boundary of 4,096km. Besides, Modi and Hasina will be holding discussions on new rail links between the two countries. India and Bangladesh are already connected by Kolkata-Dhaka train service while a new rail link from Khulna to Kolkata is being examined.
Waterways connectivity is set to be another high point of discussions between the two leaders. It is not a new concept but it has been in limbo for decades. New Delhi and Dhaka are already negotiating a coastal shipping agreement to allow smaller vessels to operate between the two countries.
Once India and Bangladesh show to others the immense benefits of land transit and connectivity, it will inevitably encourage two other BBIN countries — Bhutan and Nepal — to emulate this and intensify cooperation through this sub-regional grouping. Senior officials of BBIN have already held two meetings under the Joint Working Group (JWG) format. The last meeting was held in New Delhi on Jan. 30-31 this year and the JWG discussed issues like water resources management, power, hydropower, connectivity and transit. This was the first time when officials of all four BBIN countries participated. The next BBIN meeting is scheduled to be held in Bangladesh later this year.
The BBIN countries are already discussing ways to intensify cooperation in such areas as data sharing for flood forecasting, possibility of exchanging best practices on basin wide water resources management and development, and explore the possibility of using multi-modal transport to meet commercial as well as tourist needs. South Asian countries have for long remained a laggard in forging connectivity, largely because of political considerations. India-Pakistan animosity is to be blamed for much of what ails South Asia today.
It remains to be seen whether India’s BBIN initiative is successful and pays dividends. If it does, it will provide a positive template for India and Pakistan to rework their cooperation in the larger regional interest. Modi’s upcoming Bangladesh visit will be an important test case in this context.