External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has her task cut out during her two-day trip to Bangladesh which began Sunday. Officially visiting at the invitation of Bangladesh Foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali to co-chair the fourth meeting of the India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission, she is also expected to meet sections of the business and political leadership including opposition leader Khaleda Zia. This interaction has already led to heartburn among the ruling Awami League with many pointing out that Zia had cancelled her scheduled meeting with then Indian President Pranab Mukherjee during his state visit to Dhaka in March 2013.
The visit comes at a time when Bangladesh is grappling with the Rohingya refugee crisis, with over 600,000 refugees entering the country after the Myanmar Army launched a crackdown on them since August 25. While India has been providing relief material to Bangladesh to deal with the crisis, it also describes the Rohingyas as a terror threat.
Earlier this month, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley visited Dhaka, during which he signed a $4.5 billion third Line of Credit (LoC) agreement, bringing the total credit extended by India to Bangladesh over the last six years to $8 billion. But that pales before the $24 billion in funds and loans promised by Beijing to Dhaka during Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in October 2016, although much of that is yet to materialise.
While India’s Ministry of External Affairs called the relationship “excellent” ahead of Swaraj’s visit, there is still resentment in Bangladesh over the long-standing Teesta waters accord, repeatedly scuttled by West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. Then, India’s clampdown on cattle smuggling has led to a surge in the price of beef and leather goods in Bangladesh; it has also led to major investments by the private sector there to build up domestic herds. Most of these issues are likely to be raised during Swaraj’s visit, making it an extremely critical and hectic tour.