The atmospherics could not have been better. Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina broke with protocol to receive Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the airport. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s flight was declared a VIP one and Dhaka airspace cleared for it. The substantive part of the visit matched the warmth on display with the ratification of the historic land boundary agreement, putting to rest a 41 year-old dispute and ending the stateless status of 50,000 people in 61 enclaves. The 4,096-km border has long been a thorn in the side of relations between the two countries. Another major step has been in India getting access to the ports of Chittagong and Mongla for its cargo vessels. At present, Indian ships have to go to Singapore, offload their cargo and then have it sent back to Bangladesh, an exercise which takes up to 40 days. With the new development, it will now take a week. But the more significant aspect is that Chittagong port was developed by the Chinese in its bid to expand its influence in the region and as part of its string of pearls strategy.
A slew of economic measures like a $2 billion line of credit from India and release of more power to Bangladesh have been reciprocated in the form India-specific SEZs. But the one outstanding and emotive issue, that of the Teesta waters-sharing deal, remains elusive. For Mr Modi, the key to making this work is in getting Ms Banerjee on board and he has made every effort to ensure that she is on the same page as him. In 2011, during then PM Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit, the agreement was scuttled after Ms Banerjee raised objections. As of now, West Bengal is unable to utilise the Teesta waters owing to lack of infrastructure for irrigation. The future of the agreement lies in domestic politics. With the assembly elections in West Bengal next year, it is unlikely that the PM will push her too hard. However, the Centre may make some financial concessions to her, and that will make it easier to get her on board.
The other important area of cooperation with Bangladesh is in the field of intelligence sharing about the insurgent activity in the border areas. Bangladesh has been tough on any anti-Indian activity being conducted on its soil, and Mr Modi clearly hopes to build on that. As far as Mr Modi’s neighbourhood outreach goes, this visit has been one of the most productive so far.