Prime minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to the neighbourhood continues. Today, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj heads to Dhaka, her first solo visit after she took office. Ms Swaraj will underline, during her talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and leading figures in government, that New Delhi is looking to move past the inertia in ties seen under the UPA rule. Bangladesh is crucial to India. Both countries share a 4,096-km border, which is far more than the India-Pakistan border and Line of Control at 3,323 km. India seeks transit rights through Bangladesh to the North-East and beyond to improve connectivity with Myanmar. New Delhi also has security concerns relating to illegal migration and the presence of anti-Indian militant groups on Bangladeshi soil. Dhaka wants access to Indian markets, technology and services — and an amicable settlement of water-sharing issues relating to some of the 54 rivers that flow through both countries.
Sheikh Hasina has been a good interlocutor for New Delhi. She has pushed for closer ties despite strong domestic opposition, cracked down on militant groups and signed an extradition treaty that helps track down North-East insurgents. She has been facing criticism for her pro-India stance as New Delhi has not reciprocated on key issues. India failed to sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement, which West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was opposed to and it is yet to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement, which enables the exchange of enclaves along the border. The Modi government will be keen on taking issues forward, not least because of the growing consolidation in Bangladesh-China relations. Sheikh Hasina was in China this month and returned with agreements that include an MoU to create an economic and investment zone in Chittagong. China is also keen on building a deep sea port at Sonadia to access the Indian Ocean via the Yunnan province but Dhaka is yet to make up its mind.
India must offer a roadmap for ties that keeps Bangladesh interested and benefits both countries. Some discussions will be difficult. The ministry of home affairs (MHA) has vetoed Dhaka’s request to grant Bangladeshi citizens visa on arrival, following opposition from the Assam government. This makes Sheikh Hasina vulnerable to more criticism at home. Ms Swaraj’s challenge will be to persuade Dhaka to look beyond sensitive issues and perhaps offer infrastructure cooperation as an area that placates critics. Indian politicians should do their bit for ties by avoiding exaggerated rhetoric about illegal migrants, which must grate on Bangladeshi audiences. Both countries must also craft a cultural agenda to develop a nuanced understanding of each other. Indians tend to associate Bangladesh with floods, illegal migration, microcredit, a declining cricket team, and fabric procured from western malls. That must change too.