A Transformational Partnership or Power Play in the India-Bangladesh Relationship?

June 26, 2024 12:43 pm

At the heart of this partnership lies a so-called shared vision for peace, prosperity, and development in the South Asian region. Both leaders recognize the interconnectedness of these goals – enduring peace can only flourish alongside economic growth. However, there is an implicit understanding. Bangladesh’s economic trajectory will be crucial in maintaining a balanced partnership. If Bangladesh lags in development, India’s influence could become overly dominant. To achieve true prosperity, Bangladesh must prioritize investments in its own infrastructure and human capital.

India considers Bangladesh an important partner for its “Neighborhood First” and “Act East” policies. These policies aim to build stronger economic and strategic ties with South and Southeast Asian nations. Therefore, India prioritizes improving physical (roads, railways), energy, and digital connectivity between the two countries. Enhanced logistics will significantly benefit India’s northeast region, unlocking its economic potential. Bangladesh, on the other hand, can earn significant revenue from transit fees associated with increased trade flows. However, to truly capitalize on this opportunity, Bangladesh must also invest in its internal infrastructure, potentially with the help of foreign funds.

According to the joint statement, both India and Bangladesh are eager to expand trade and investment between each other. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is a potential avenue for achieving this goal. However, for Bangladesh to truly benefit, it must diversify its export basket beyond garments. An over-reliance on a single export category can lead to trade deficits and economic vulnerability. Bangladesh needs to invest in developing and exporting a wider range of products to create a more sustainable trade relationship.

Water resource management remains a complex issue for both nations. India and Bangladesh share numerous transboundary rivers, and successful cooperation is critical to ensure equitable and sustainable water use. Data exchange and water-sharing agreements are crucial steps. However, India must come to a unified water management strategy with its state governments and neighboring countries to avoid creating fragmented and ultimately fruitless negotiations. The current water-sharing mechanism is viewed by many in Bangladesh as discriminatory, leading to ecological and climate change impacts within the country. Collaborative water management strategies that consider the long-term well-being of both countries are essential.

The Bangladesh-India border has witnessed tragic incidents, with the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) reportedly killing 332 individuals between 2013 and 2023. Despite repeated protests by Bangladesh and calls for restraint, these killings persist. The absence of concrete measures to address this humanitarian issue during the bilateral talks is very disappointing. A comprehensive partnership should prioritize human lives and security, especially along sensitive borders. It is essential for both nations to engage in meaningful dialogue and take decisive steps to prevent further loss of innocent lives.

Govt to consider Teesta proposals from both India and China, implement the one best for country: PM
New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina before a meeting, at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, Saturday, June 22, 2024. (PTI Photo/Manvender Vashist Lav) (PTI06_22_2024_000126B)(PTI)

Strengthening defense cooperation is another area of focus. India’s interest in modernizing Bangladesh’s armed forces aligns with its own strategic goals of maintaining regional stability by suppressing alternative or different political opinions. However, it is important to acknowledge that India itself has a need for modernizing its own military. Observing how India supports Bangladesh’s defense modernization is intriguing, given their shared political agenda. Geostrategically, India seeks to maintain a degree of influence over Bangladesh’s armed forces to ensure regional security aligns with their shared political agenda.

India has pledged to provide development assistance to Bangladesh, including capacity-building programs for civil servants and professionals. While these programs can be valuable, there’s a caveat: Indian civil servants may not meet global standards. Bangladesh must ensure that knowledge transfer and skill development empower local institutions rather than creating dependence on Indian expertise. Capacity building can unintentionally give India leverage over Bangladesh’s bureaucracy.

Promoting cultural exchange and easier travel between the two countries is a key goal. However, Bangladesh must navigate this process cautiously. Cultural exchange programs can have unintended consequences, leading to a form of “cultural aggression” that may threaten Bangladesh’s unique cultural identity. To ensure a healthy exchange, Bangladesh should ensure programs are reciprocal, fostering a mutual appreciation for both cultures. This will strengthen ties without eroding Bangladesh’s social fabric.

India and Bangladesh have committed to working together on regional and sub-regional integration, collaborating on issues like disaster risk reduction. This expanded cooperation can foster a more stable and prosperous South Asia.

It is being touted that the India-Bangladesh partnership extends beyond traditional areas. Both countries are keen to collaborate on developing green and digital technologies. This collaboration can help them leapfrog ahead in these rapidly evolving fields. India’s offer to provide Bangladesh with a small satellite and launch it using an Indian launch vehicle is a positive step towards fostering scientific collaboration.

Furthermore, opening a new Indian Assistant High Commission in Rangpur Division will benefit Bangladeshi citizens by facilitating visa applications. There are underlying strategic considerations that color this Indian approach. Rangpur is a strategically important division for India. Its proximity to the “chicken’s neck” corridor, a narrow strip of land connecting mainland India to its northeast, and a growing Muslim population in the region, are factors in India’s decision. While the new consulate will undoubtedly benefit Bangladeshi citizens, it is important to acknowledge the potential geopolitical implications.

To translate the vision of a transformational partnership into reality will require overcoming several hurdles. Historical disputes, such as those surrounding water rights and enclaves, can create friction. Furthermore, bureaucratic hurdles on both sides can impede progress. Effective and transparent communication between the leaders and their respective bureaucracies is crucial to ensure smooth implementation of agreed-upon initiatives.

Besides, the ultimate success of this partnership hinges on garnering public support in both countries. Leaders on both sides must effectively communicate the benefits of this partnership to their citizens. Transparency and clear communication plans are essential to build trust and understanding. Nevertheless, there has been an increase in anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh attributed to alleged Indian involvement in the country’s domestic politics.

Climate change poses a significant threat to both nations. Rough sea, erratic weather patterns, and increased flooding all threaten regional stability. Collaborative water resource management strategies that take climate change into account are critical for long-term sustainability.

Setting aside over-reliance on India, Bangladesh should prioritize its own development, economic diversification, and cultural identity. India, in turn, must ensure its development assistance empowers Bangladesh and its strategic interests do not overshadow the goals of ‘’transforming partnership’’- which are Peace, Prosperity and Development. By collaboratively addressing these issues, India and Bangladesh can forge a future that genuinely benefits their citizens and bolsters South Asia.

Rajeev Ahmed, The Author of Bengal Nexus, and the Editor of geopolits.com

Related Articles

Back to top button