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ditching water-sharing deal, India fumbles historic opportunity to reshape neighborhood

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

It was being touted as the visit that would shift paradigms and mark a historic change in the trajectory of India’s relations with Bangladesh. In the end the Indian prime minister’s visit to Dhaka earlier this month did nothing of the sort.

Manmohan Singh was visiting Dhaka to take forward the process of restoring credibility to Delhi-Dhaka ties initiated by his Bangladeshi counterpart during her visit to New Delhi in July 2010.

Singh’s visit came 12 years after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Dhaka in 1999. High-profile visits including those by Sonia Gandhi (all-powerful leader of the ruling Congress Party), the Indian external affairs minister and the Indian home minister had preceded the prime minister’s visit, laying the groundwork for a possible historic shift in Delhi-Dhaka ties.

When Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi in 2010, she decided to go for a big gamble by putting all outstanding issues on the table and making it clear that Dhaka was a serious partner of New Delhi in counterterror operations and an economic bridge between India and its northeastern region.

New Delhi tried to seize this opportunity and decided to give Hasina’s offers substantive weight by deciding to open Indian markets for Bangladeshi textiles and offering to resolve the dispute over how to share use of the Teesta and Feni rivers.

Boundary issues have also been moving toward some sort of a resolution as the two sides move ahead in resolving the issues of small enclaves in each other’s territory.

Insurgents operating in Indian’s northeast have tended to find a safe haven in Bangladesh for some decades now, but the Hasina government has taken a hard line against them, satisfying one of India’s major long-standing demands.

India, for its part, has given strong instructions to its Border Security Force against shooting unarmed Bangladeshi civilians along the border areas even if they are found crossing the borders illegally.

By restoring transborder connectivity via the northeast, India and Bangladesh will be laying the groundwork for larger regional economic integration involving Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.

Even as the Indian prime minister was about to make his maiden voyage to Bangladesh, it was being suggested that India’s eastern neighborhood stood on the threshold of a remarkable transformation.

However, Manmohan Singh’s visit fell much short of expectations. The two states did sign the landmark agreement on the demarcation of land boundaries and the exchange of adversely held enclaves, thereby settling the decades-old vexed border issue. Singh also announced 24-hour access for Bangladeshi nationals through the Tin Bigha corridor in addition to duty-free access for 46 textile items, effective immediately.

India also declared that it help Bangladesh develop its ports and infrastructure as well as customs points and would supply bulk power to Bangladesh by connecting the two national grids.

But Bangladesh was not satisfied, as a last-minute scrapping of the Teesta water-sharing deal — because of objections from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to the draft of the agreement — left a bad taste. If these objections are not resolved soon, they might provide ammunition to anti-India elements in Bangladesh.

Clarification was sought from the Indian envoy by the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry as to why India decided not to sign the treaty at the very last minute. The India-Bangladesh summit meeting came very close to collapsing.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit had imparted a new direction to the course of Delhi-Dhaka ties. And Bangladesh has been rightly upset at the slow pace of implementing deals signed during Hasina’s visit. Hasina has taken great political risk to put momentum back into bilateral ties. But for a long time, there has been no serious attempt on India’s part to settle outstanding issues.

Bureaucratic inertia and lack of political will has prevented many of the deals from following through. As India failed to reciprocate fully to Hasina’s overtures, the main opposition in Dhaka, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), started using India-Bangladesh bonhomie under Hasina to attack the government for toeing India’s line. India-Bangladesh ties reached their lowest ebb during the 2001-2006 tenure of the BNP government.

The BNP and its fundamentalist allies remain opposed to normalization of Delhi-Dhaka ties and have demanded that all bilateral deals be made public first. The country remains deeply divided.

In India, too, various constituencies have stymied Delhi-Dhaka rapprochement. The Indian prime minister was to be accompanied by the chief ministers of five states bordering Bangladesh.

But Mamta Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, decided not to go at the very last minute, expressing her disapproval of the final draft of the Teesta river water agreement. Moreover, domestic textile producers in India have been lobbying hard to resist opening up of Indian markets more fully to Bangladeshi goods.

There is no doubt that India, as the larger economic power, should be magnanimous toward its neighbors. India remains fixated on its western border, but there is very little that India can do to change the regional dynamic there.

It is India’s eastern neighbor that India should focus on and go the extra mile for.

If India fails to swiftly capitalize on the propitious political circumstances in Bangladesh today, it will be damaging its credibility in the region even further. New Delhi’s window of opportunity with Dhaka will not last forever.

Anti-Indian sentiments can be marginalized if India allows Bangladesh to harness its economic growth and presents it with greater opportunities. Yet, India remains overly obsessed with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has failed to give due attention to its eastern frontier with Bangladesh.

India is witnessing rising turmoil all around its borders, and therefore a stable, moderate Bangladesh as a partner is in its long-term interest.

Constructive Indo-Bangladesh ties could be a major stabilizing factor for the South Asian region as a whole.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.