“Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast is one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” That’s how former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau once summed up the reality of living with a bigger neighbour, the USA.
Among the many calibrated poses Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck during this just-concluded visit to Bangladesh, the most striking was not giving the impression that India is a big brother.
He praised human development indicators of the neighbour, spoke of how proud he felt when a Chinese CEO told him about the need for India with a 120-crore population to learn a thing or two about doing business from Bangladesh , a country of 14 crore people.
Modi took West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee along to Dhaka, and showed in ample measure the political will to take ties to a new level and direction.
For that to happen, the officialdom needed to go beyond the usual ways of dealing with Bangladesh. Connectivity plans — road, rail, and water — were much talked about.
But people-to-people contact rests on mutual trust. For example, the Maitree Express train has Indian crew and staff when it goes from Kolkata to Dhaka. But on security grounds, Indians don’t allow a Bangladeshi crew on the return journey, after the train enters India.
An imaginative and practical solution still eludes the issue of illegal migration and repartition of Bangladeshis entering India illegally.
As of now, around 30,000 Bangladeshis await repartition. It is not easy to manage a border 4,096 km, most of which is porous. Building trust on people’s movement would help both sides resolve niggles quickly, considering Dhaka has delivered on all Indian demands in the recent past.
New Delhi proposed two special economic zones for Indian companies ahead of Modi’s visit. Bangladesh granted 600 acres for two SEZs in no time.
Trust deficit in the past has delayed many prospective projects, such as cooperation in the power sector. Some eight years ago, when India wanted to share electricity with Bangladesh, Dhaka was unimpressed.
It was seen as getting a small return gift for giving India transit to transport cargo from West Bengal to Tripura for building a gas-based power station.
But years of persuasion paid off and India started exporting power to Bangladesh from October 2013.
In diplomacy, benefits are mutual. It is estimated that the northeastern states can generate 70,000 MW of hydropower. Without Bangladesh, supplying that power to other regions would be impossible.