PM’s Dhaka visit to bring new deals, new trajectory in ties

By Rahul Dass, IANS,

New Delhi : Accompanied by five chief ministers, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travels to Bangladesh Tuesday on a visit that experts in both countries believe will transform ties between the neighbours and take relations to a new trajectory.

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In a rare move, emphasising the importance of the Sep 6-7 visit, Manmohan Singh will be accompanied by the chief ministers of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram on the trip that comes four decades after the India-Pakistan war had led to the birth of Bangladesh.

On the anvil is a series of agreements, including one demarcating the India-Bangladesh border that runs 4,095 km, to resolve long-pending differences. India has to hand over 111 enclaves to Bangladesh and in return get 51 enclaves.

The prime minister’s trip, being seen as important not just for the two countries but for the entire region, will see the signing of agreements for resolving differences on sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers. The growing trade deficit between India and Bangladesh will also be addressed during the trip. Indian exports to Bangladesh in 2010-11 was $3.84 billion while imports were $406.3 million.

Former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh Veena Sikri said the trip would set the stage for a “new kind of transformation” in India-Bangladesh ties, while foreign policy expert Arvind Gupta said both countries needed to look at newer areas of cooperation.

Another former high commissioner, I.P. Khosla, said one should look at a “new era” in Delhi-Dhaka ties. Muhammad Faridul Alam of the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh was of the view that the opinion of civil society must also be taken into account before the next summit-level talks.

“The visit is very important for the region. For the first time, very serious attention is being paid to the northeast,” Sikri told IANS.

She said economic development was going to be a key factor.

Sikri, who served as high commissioner in Dhaka during 2003-2006, said the decisions taken during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s India trip in 2010 were being implemented.

During Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January last year, New Delhi and Dhaka signed several agreements to improve trade and business, communications and people-to-people contact. The two countries are now implementing those proposals and accords.

Sikri stressed that more people-to-people contact between the two countries was needed.

Alam, who is chairperson of the department of international relations at the University of Chittagong, told IANS over the phone: “Some important issues are going to be discussed. Border fencing, use of Mongla port, electricity support, and trade and commerce will be deliberated upon during the two-day trip.”

Expressing confidence that India-Bangladesh ties will improve further, he said next time the governments must take the opinion of stakeholders like civil society before having such summit-level talks.

Arvind Gupta of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses said the visit would take relations between the two countries on “a new trajectory”.

“It is the relationship between the people. We have to leverage our cultural legacies,” Gupta said, adding that the process of transformation had begun when Sheikh Hasina visited India in 2010.

“But these are early days,” he added quickly.

He explained that there were two sets of issues. “One is the legacy issue like border which is weighing heavy on both sides. The other is the physical connectivity.”

Physical connectivity is an important factor as the northeastern states are surrounded by Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and China and the only land route access to these states from within India is through Assam. But this route passes through hilly terrain with steep roads and multiple hairpin bends.

Agartala, for instance, is 1,650 km from Kolkata via Guwahati. But the distance between the Tripura capital and Kolkata via Bangladesh is about 350 km.

Khosla, who served in Bangladesh in the 1980s, was of the opinion that since there is economic growth in India, it should also invest heavily in Bangladesh and “create infrastructure”.

“Let us talk of connectivity and have a lot of `through’ traffic,” he said.

India-Bangladesh ties, which have seen their share of ups and downs, came under stress in June this year after Manmohan Singh’s off-the-record remark on anti-India sentiments in the country.

The upcoming prime ministerial visit, it is being hoped, puts the equation back on keel.

(Rahul Dass can be contacted at [email protected])