By Gopal Khanal (KATHMANDU, 20 June) – Modi’s successful Bangladesh visit reasserts India’s regional leadership and makes a strong case for its global aspirations. The problem is to make sure that the elephant really tangos with its immediate neighbours.
In what can be aptly called the continuation of his ‘neighbor first’ policy, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrapped up his two-day maiden visit to Bangladesh on 7 June 2015. During the visit both the countries signed 22 agreements for cooperation in the areas of trade, investment, education, climate change and information and communication technology. Among the major cracks, Modi announced a fresh line of credit of USD 2 Billion to Bangladesh; an MoU was signed on the blue economy and maritime cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Both the government realized that two specialized economic zones(SEZs) would be required to expand economic and business relations between the two countries.
Along with trade cooperation, India and Bangladesh have reached an agreement to curb terrorist activities frequently occurring across the border. Prime Minister Modi had reiterated the cooperation for security and fight against terrorism since India’s volatile northeast had been experiencing terrorist infiltration from Bangladesh.
Besides all these friendly agreements and understanding, a historic accord was also signed; that is the ratification of 1974 Land Boundary Agreement and its 2011 Protocol. Both leaders exchanged the letters of modalities for its implementation. According to the agreement, some 50 enclaves inside Bangladesh have been integrated into India and about 100 erstwhile Indian kasba into Bangladesh. New Delhi’s strategic move aside, Prime Minister Modi, no doubt, has performed ‘liberal’ policy towards the small neighbor by approving the agreement, by which India lost some of its land.
Interestingly, the protocol was signed in 2011 by the UPA-led Manmohan Singh government but that was opposed by then opposition-BJP. In a sharp contrast to its previous stand, BJP passed the bill within a year after coming to power. Indian Prime Minister Modi declared that the ‘Berlin Wall’ had fallen and new relations of partnership had dawned with Bangladesh. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Seikh Hasina, in response, also wore a triumphant countenance.
But in Dhaka’s point of view, the visit was not up to the mark. They could not achieve what they had been expecting in the contentious issue of water sharing agreement in Teesta River. The Banlgadeshi government was expecting an agreement on the Teesta’s water sharing but it didn’t take place since India, as in the past, continued to demonstrate reluctance. The long-standing grievance of Bangladeshi people has been that the government of India’s west Bengal has diverted almost all of Teesta’s water, leaving little for Bangladesh. West Bengal government has been denying Dhaka’s claim.
The issue of water sharing in Teesta River had overshadowed Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh and his official talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in September 2011. New Delhi that year had scrapped the draft of the proposed deal on sharing of the waters of the common river Teesta, a day ahead of Prime Minister Singh’s visit. Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, had exerted a huge pressure on the national government not to sign the deal. Banarjee had denied to be listed in Prime Minister’s delegation to Dhaka citing her disagreement to the proposed draft.
Let’s leave the contention away. Under Modi’s leadership, both countries have genuinely agreed to forge partnership in bilateral as well as multi lateral and global issues. BBIN was further endorsed by Modi in his Banlgadesh visit, which got a shape a week after as the four countries inked the motor vehicle agreement in Thimpu, capital of Bhutan. The fact that Pakistan and Srilanka have missed the opportunity to join in the network is not new since they had opposed the proposal during Kathmandu SAARC Summit.
In a surprising note, Modi received a red carpet welcome since the beginning by all sections of politics. In an exception, some Bangaldeshi religious groups had blamed Modi for using inappropriate means to contain the 2002 Gujrat riots in which thousands of Muslims were killed. Overall, Bangladeshi media’s commentaries on Modi’s visit were highly encouraging. They termed Modi- ‘a visionary’ leader, and the one who thinks ‘out of the box’.
But the visit should not be judged or assessed in some particular agreements or assistance. India as a regional power and aspiring global economic power radiates some significant strategic objectives.
The most important gain of Modi’s Bangladesh visit is to uphold Dhaka under the influence of New Delhi. It’s a continuation of ”Nehru Doctrine”- a doctrine that maintains the whole South Asia as ”a sphere of Indian influence.”
Modi has consistently outlined a vision of ”shared prosperity for South Asia”, theoretically a modest idea but he wants it to be pragmatically implemented under the leadership of New Delhi. BJP had been blaming Man Mohan Singh led UPA-2 government for losing India’s influence in the neighborhood. Modi a ‘nationalist’ as called by the cross-section of Indian analysts, was, therefore, under an obligation to correct the “wrong policy” adopted by the UPA government.
In a centerpiece to start the initiative, Modi tactfully invited all the heads of the governments\states of South Asia in his oath taking ceremony. He got an overwhelming response from his SAARC counterparts including arch rival Pakistan, with its Prime Minister Nawaj Sharif attending the function notwithstanding the short notice.
After becoming Prime Minister, Modi has been credibly projecting Indian leadership in the region as by Nehru, an architect of Independent India’s foreign policy, who had adopted ‘expansionist’ approach- putting the whole South Asia under the banner of ‘Indian subcontinent’. Though Modi is a sharp critic of INC, the party that Nehru founded, he appears to emulate him in foreign policy conduct.
Modi’s visit to Bhutan in (15-16) June last year, first foreign trip assuming charge; Nepal in (3-4) August the same year, and Srilanka in March (13-14) 2015 bridged gap of long absent high level exchanges in the political level. These visits helped him in resetting relations with these countries. In Bhutan, Modi gave a strong message that India would always stay with Thimpu for the latter’s development from Hydro power to physical infrastructures. In Nepal, he won the confidence back for India. In Sri Lanka, Modi got his man – Maithripala Sirisena- as president at the expense of Mahinda Rajapaksa – man loyal to China. Rajapaksa openly blamed Intelligence- India’s RAW and Western powers- of staging conspiracy against him.
Modi gave a clear message to Bhutan that there was no need to look North for the latter’s domestic development. Bhutan’s former Prime Minister Jigmey Y. Thinley lost election after Indian government imposed surprise blockade over Thinley’s meet with Chinese Prime Minister abroad and his discussions regarding Beijing’s desire to open Embassy in Thimpu. In Nepal, Modi successfully changed the perception towards India by delivering significant assistance and assuagin Nepal’s concerns. His address to Nepal’s parliament was as rousing as it was historic.
Therefore, Modi’s Dhaka sojourn has two-fold strategic importance. One is to stop Beijing’s growing influence in Dhaka. The other is to ascertain support to India’s candidacy for UNSC permanent member. Modi offered enough hints towards that. Making a strong pitch for reforms in the UN and its Security Council, Modi as elsewhere presented a strong case why India should be supported for this. Modi also demonstrated visible flexibility with Bangladesh in several areas including in the boundary issue, resolved through liberal swapping.
Modi’s agreement with Bangladesh has given a strong message to Nepal that New delhi would also opt to sign boundary agreement with Nepal. Nepal and India have already reached 98 percent agreement in resolving their border problem. Susta in Nawalparasi and Kalapani in Darchula are the only remaining contentions.Nepal should diplomatically deal the issue. But at the same time, Nepal should wait and watch how Indian PM Modi moves ahead. It can take a heart in the fact that the elephant is learning to dance.