NEW DELHI:When Air India One touches down at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport early morning on June 6, it will be the culmination of months of preparations of a company of key actors to create the right circumstances for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had begun courting Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat, when the then Bangladesh ambassador Tariq Karim met him in Gandhinagar in 2013. They discussed “mangrove conservation”, but its import was bigger than the conversation.
The contact was done at considerable domestic political expense for Hasina, as she was the only leader of a Muslim-majority country to breach his diplomatic isolation. But, the calculated risk has paid off.
The relationship has since become the mainstay of the Modi government’s neighbourhood first policy. Not only has Modi invested in ties with Bangladesh, his key aides have all kept their eyes peeled on the eastern border, with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval leading the team.
When he was put out on pasture, the former spymaster had identified infiltration from Bangladesh as India’s biggest security challenge. Now back at the Centre, he has been the driving force for the revived partnership, especially the land boundary agreement and its subsequent consequences on improving security cooperation.
The recent track 1.5 event in Delhi’s India Habitat Centre on India-Bangladesh ties was a showcase of the importance of neighbourly ties with Dhaka. Last year, it was organised by another think-tank, but significantly the main partner this time along with Bangladesh High Commission was India Foundation run by Doval’s son, Shourya Doval.
The event was inaugurated by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, central ministers took part in discussion panels and the valedictory speech was by Ajit Doval. “Anybody who lives in Delhi knows how rare getting so many ministers together for same function is,” quipped Bangladesh’s high commissioner to India, Syed Moazzam Ali.
While BJP as opposition stalled the progress of the constitutional amendment of the Land Boundary Bill in the Rajya Sabha, Modi took it up as a personal commitment made to Hasina. During each of their meetings in New York and Kathmandu, she used to bring it up and Modi reassured her that it will be done.
Modi had delegated Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to reach out to other political parties and RSS pracharak-turned-general secretary Ram Madhav to bring party units in line.
Madhav has been the PM’s eyes and ears on the Track 2 channel with some key countries, and Bangladesh is not an exception. At the recent dialogue, Madhav candidly admitted, “A year ago, I had been in the camp who opposed (the Land Boundary Bill)”. It was the creation of an internal consensus, along with the outreach to Trinamool Congress and other parties by Sushma Swaraj which led to the Land Boundary Bill being passed unanimously in Parliament.
The foreign secretary, his officials in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian ambassador in Bangladesh Pankaj Saran, had been working on a day-to-day basis on deepening of ties, with the message given to the political leadership that implementation of the long-pending land boundary agreement was necessary for taking forward the relations.
Besides Sushma Swaraj, Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh has been also a votary for stronger ties, especially due to his background of having fought in the 1971 Bangladesh “liberation war” as a young second lieutenant.
Of course, the patron-in-chief for India-Bangladesh ties has been President Pranab Mukherjee. “During every meeting with Modi and Sushma Swaraj, he noted that LBA (Land Boundary Bill) was important to increase trust levels,” said a person who is known to be close to Mukherjee.
The President has always been a key advisor for the Bangladesh PM, who had stayed in his house during her exile in Delhi, and therefore has an exaggerated imprint on Bangladeshi domestic politics.
While Bangladesh High Commissioner Syed Moazzam Ali and his officials have been working tirelessly to ensure that Modi’s visit has historical significance, former Bangladesh envoy Syed Tariq Karim continues to play a role in ties, especially in sub-regional cooperation that has now become a mantra for this government.
Karim, who was Bangladesh’s envoy till October 2014, continues to be based in Delhi working with World Bank on regional connectivity. More significantly, he is a distinguished fellow at Vivekanada International Foundation, the former stomping ground of Ajit Doval, from where he can easily catch South Block’s attention.
It was one of Karim’s idea which may get greater play during this visit. In 2013, then foreign minister Dipu Moni had articulated during a lecture at a think-tank about the need for common river basin management.
Gowher Rizvi, who has been Hasina’s international affairs advisor since 2009, has made innumerable trips between Dhaka and Delhi, often accompanied by colleague Mashiur Rahman, the Bangladesh PM’s economic advisor.
Rizvi, with his insight into the Indian polity and institutions, has helped Hasina navigate relations on a steady course.
What Modi Means for Hasina
The PM’s trip would be a vindication of her foreign policy of taking ties with India to the next level. She had faced domestic criticism of not getting due return for this policy, with Delhi unable to meet commitments on the Land Boundary agreement and Teesta water pact for years. Hasina had also been under pressure from the Opposition, but even BNP has made positive noises to “welcome” Modi. She was the first leader of a Muslim-majority country to reach out to Modi when he was still in diplomatic doghouse.
Deliverables for Modi’s dhaka visit
■ Pact on Coastal Shipping to carry out coastal movement of goods between the two countries
■ MoU on prevention of human trafficking, especially of women and children
■ Exchange of instruments for additional protocol to land boundary agreement
■ Revised trade pacts
■ Joint pact on transmission of power
■ Additional line of credit of around $2 billion
■ Institutionalising defence cooperation for training courses and joint exercises
■ Common river management but Teesta unlikely
■ Relaxation of visa norms
■ Increasing youth exchanges
■ More bus and train services
■ Counter-terror agreements for joint efforts to crack down on fake Indian currency, intelligence sharing mechanism and joint probes in terror cases.