The standout aspect of India-Bangladesh ties, which became visible during the just-concluded visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the course of which 22 MoUs were signed, is the elevation and broadening of bilateral relations to the strategic level. Thus, the agreements signed include in the areas of defence, civil nuclear energy and space, with India earmarking 500 million dollars towards defence spending in respect of Bangladesh for a start. In addition, the common resolve of the two countries to fight Pakistan-sponsored terrorism was all too visible, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagging this aspect.
With no other SAARC neighbour are we attempting such a multi-faceted relationship. However, a deal on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river, which is so crucial to Bangladesh, continues to be elusive. Sheikh Hasina’s domestic political opponents on the far right Islamic side, who are not well-disposed toward India and harbor sympathies for Pakistan, are likely to exploit this. Both countries thought that an agreement on Teesta waters was in the bag in January 2011 during the Dhaka visit of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee played spoilsport. Her position appears not to have changed, although Mr Modi invited her as a guest of honour at the lunch he gave for the visiting dignitary. The Bengal CM’s view is that the Teesta waters are needed for the North Bengal. Six months ago, China sold Dhaka two submarines and would like to build a port for Bangladesh. Escalating the grade of India’s ties with Dhaka may help to place matters in perspective.