Considering how important Bangladesh is for India, the first bilateral visit of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has been somewhat low-key. Two pacts were signed — one, a revised trade accord, and another to prevent illicit narcotics trade. Both agreed on the anodyne formulation that they, as victims of terror, needed to fight terror together. This is election year in Bangladesh.
Neither New Delhi nor Dhaka was, perhaps, up to any dramatic agreements at this stage. India, too, probably, didn’t want to annoy Sheikh Hasina with too close an embrace of her rival. It was in Ms Khaleda’s interest to visit New Delhi and signal to the electorate that she too could do business with India. As for India, it was important for it to play host to Ms Khaleda so as to make it clear that our interests lay in working with whoever the Bangladeshi people elected as leader.
Bangladesh represents a huge challenge for policy-makers in New Delhi. It is surrounded almost completely in its land borders by Indian territory. Perhaps as a result of this, it has developed a peculiar phobia about India. As a result, it would rather not earn revenue by permitting Indian transit trade to the North-east than see India prosper. Likewise it would rather let its natural gas reserves remain untapped than sell it to its neighbour. India would be willing to live with this. But what it cannot countenance is the steady trickle of Bangladeshi economic migrants into its territory, or the Pakistani intelligence services and a clutch of North-eastern separatist groups being allowed to use its territory to launch attacks on India. As it is, Dhaka’s inability to exercise control has given rise to anarchic conditions in parts of the country, allowing the unchecked rise of all kinds of Islamic radicals. New Delhi does not have too many instrumentalities to deal with the situation there.
But it could be less niggling and niggardly on matters of trade. It is in our interest to offer Bangladesh duty-free access to Indian markets and as well as promote Indian investment there. An India-Bangladesh partnership is the key that can unlock the potential of the entire eastern region of the subcontinent.