Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be expecting India to walk the extra mile when she arrives in New Delhi for an official visit on Friday. And rightly so. Under Ms Hasina, Bangladesh has proved a steadfast ally of India and reports suggest the two sides are set to ink nearly 40 agreements during her visit.
For the Indian side, the focus has been on a defence cooperation deal that is expected to cover stepped up collaboration to counter terror and extremism. There has also been talk of a $500 million line of credit for the purchase of military hardware as part of a larger multi-billion dollar economic aid package encompassing everything from connectivity to energy.
But there is no getting around the fact that the issue dominating the discourse on the Bangladeshi side has been the agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta river that has been stalled since 2011. Bangladeshi officials have referred to the Teesta issue as a “litmus test”, suggesting a breakthrough could pave the way for the shared management of 54 trans-border rivers.
It is unlikely an agreement on the Teesta will be hammered out during Ms Hasina’s four-day visit, even though she is expected to meet West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee — widely perceived as the person holding up the pact — at a banquet hosted by the President. However, there has been talk of the two sides coming up with a draft document that could pave the way for a final agreement.
With Bangladesh set to go to the polls by early 2019, Hasina cannot afford to be seen in any way as bowing to India on key issues. This is a charge that has, anyway, been repeatedly hurled at her by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has already begun raising questions about the need for a defence deal with India. It is therefore imperative for India to strengthen the hands of an ally who has adopted a common stance on issues that are crucial for New Delhi, such as terrorism and regional diplomacy.
For Ms Hasina, it will be important to send out a message to her countrymen that she is engaging India on an equal footing, and in this New Delhi can help by going the extra mile to address her concerns. After its recent electoral victories, the ruling BJP surely is in a position to do so. Both sides should focus on the big picture — a stronger, stable and prosperous Bangladesh is in India’s long-term interests. Ms Hasina has shown on more than one occasion that she is willing to work towards this same big picture.