Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi gestures: The ball is in India’s court

It is not the duty of Bangladesh to convince or pressurize the Chief Minister of West Bengal to make her understand diplomatic and regional realities; rather it is the duty of the Indian government,  writes Swadesh Roy for South Asia Monitor

By Swadesh Roy OCT 9, 2019

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We can dissect Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s India visit in the first week of October into two parts – firstly, the India Economic Summit 2019 organised by the World Economic Forum where she was the chief guest, and secondly, a short bilateral visit to India. The first part of her visit turned out to be more significant. 

Given that sections of the government and civil society have been suspecting that China is getting a free run in Bangladesh, by attending the India Economic Summit which was organized by the Indian industrialists and business groups, it served as an assurance by Hasina to Indian businessmen that Bangladesh is not a place where only the Chinese can play their cards; rather Bangladesh is a place, where anyone can do their business if they qualify, be it an Indian, Japanese, Korean or even Chinese. 

The economy of South Asia, no doubt, is taking a multipolar shape. At one time, the economy of South Asia was unipolar with India as its centre, but with time, it has changed. Though not bigger than India, Bangladesh is now also a centre of South Asian economy because of its faster GDP growth rate, geopolitical situation and for having a big internal market. Its far eastern neighbor, China, is the fastest growing economy of the world and its closest neighbor, India, is a powerful economy of South Asia. Both India and China cannot afford to ignore the economy of Bangladesh which is a facilitator of these two bigger economies. Under such circumstances, PM Sheikh Hasina’s attending the India Economic Summit was of much significance to Indian businessmen.

Like China, India is also looking at many African states for investment. In spite of this, Bangladesh is more lucrative to Indian businessmen than Africa, for Bangladesh is politically and socially more stable than any of the African countries. Besides, in Bangladesh, at least 10 million young workers are ready to build up versatile industries and, in the meantime, the young women workforce of Bangladesh has already shown their ability in the garments sector. Now, Bangladesh is second after China in export of ready-made garments.

We know that Vietnam and Cambodia are doing very well in much labour-intensive export-oriented industries like shoes, toys, furniture, and electronic devices. But it is also true that if the young Bangladeshi workforce gets the chance to make those products, Bangladesh will surpass those countries.

Furthermore, Bangladesh will do better in the software sector. Indian industrial groups have that technology and expertise with running capital; even they know that there is a lot to explore in those sectors in Bangladesh than Africa. They are only afraid of China but Sheikh Hasina’s attending the summit gave the Indian businessmen more confidence to think of long-run investments in these sectors along with other innovative sectors.

World Economic Forum president Borge Brende delivered his speech from the point of Indian economic perspectives but he also spoke of future potential which will be building up, such as, infrastructure development in Afghanistan, the International North-South Transport Corridor, the Chabahar port in Iran being jointly developed by India, Iran and Afghanistan, and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway.

Brende referred to the New Development Bank created by the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and pointed out to the multipolarity of the economy. So, South Asia will also take a multipolar shape, and then these infrastructures will not only help the Indian economy but also accelerate South Asian economy, especially the economy of India’s neighbour with the faster economic growth, Bangladesh.

Bangladesh will join in the Chabahar port development, the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway and even the Afghanistan infrastructure, and Indian businessmen who invest in Bangladesh can be a part of this too. Through this economic summit, PM Sheikh Hasina gave that signal to the Indian business houses. Now, the ball is in their court and the result of it depends on how they will play these balls.

The second part of Sheikh Hasina’s visit was the bilateral trip to India. Hasina had not agreed to this bilateral visit at first. However, she agreed after her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi insisted on it. Hence, the bilateral part was a very short working visit during which the two countries signed seven agreements. Among them, two are notably important. The first is joint surveillance of their common coastal areas, which is necessary for protecting fish, a staple for Bangladeshis, and fighting terrorists and their arms smuggling. The second is on the Indian state of Tripura getting 1.80 cusecs water from the Feni river, because in the northeastern state people have been suffering for a long time from lack of drinking water. In the signing of this, Hasina has shown her humanity and statesmanship. 

Now, the ball is again in the court of India. A huge number of people by the banks of the Teesta river in Bangladesh have been suffering for a long time every summer due to lack of drinking water and irrigation water. India has been citing West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s irrational position as the main cause for a Teesta water-sharing not getting signed. It is not the duty of Bangladesh to convince or pressurize the Chief Minister of West Bengal to make her understand diplomatic and regional realities; rather it is the duty of the Indian government. After the Feni river agreement, the Teesta river water-sharing agreement becomes an obligation of the Indian government.

Sheikh Hasina has played a great diplomatic card. Now Modi has to prove his ability by responding to Hasina’s gesture.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He can be reached at swadeshroy@gmail.com)

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