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Reboot ties with Dhaka

New Delhi must clear the perception in Bangladesh that India promises while China delivers. Joyeeta Bhattacharjee writes.

india Updated: Jul 26, 2012 22:18 IST
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Hindustan Times

The talks between the foreign secretaries of India and Bangladesh, held on July 24, have gone on expected lines. On the one hand, Bangladesh expects a lot from India. On the other, for India, the window of opportunity that it had in Bangladesh is slowly closing and there is need for the speeding up the initiatives to find ways that would have a lasting impact on bilateral relations. Nevertheless, frequent interactions between leaders and high-level officials of the two countries have helped them exchange and voice each other's concerns. But by delaying its deliverables, India is losing the positive opportunity which it gained in Bangladesh over the past few years, especially after Sheikh Hasina's Awami League formed the government in 2009.

At the same time, China is there to offer India competition in reaching out to the Bangladeshis. The recent offer of Chinese companies to the Bangladesh government to finance the $ 2.9 billion Padma Multipurpose Bridge within just a few days after the World Bank cancelled its loan exemplifies the promptness of the Chinese diplomatic machinery in identifying the right trigger in expanding its influence over India's eastern neighbour. This suggests that India will have to be proactive in identifying the needs of its neighbours and be prompt not only in offering but also in delivering solutions.

The Padma Multipurpose Bridge, a major election pledge of the Awami League government, is a major infrastructure project of the country. It will connect south-western Bangladesh to the rest of the country and is likely to boost economic growth by facilitating inter-regional, cross-river transport of passengers and freight, transmission of natural gas, telecommunication and electricity in a cost-effective manner. The construction of the project faced turbulence first in 2011 as the World Bank demanded the removal of some officials accused of corruption. It finally exited from the project early this month claiming that the Bank had evidence of corruption involved with the project. The Asian Development Bank co-lender to the project also followed suit. This makes the construction of the project uncertain.

With elections likely to be held in late 2013, the government is under pressure to realise the project and is desperately looking for options. The government has been even considering self-financing the project, an idea greatly debated inside the country. While Chinese companies have been prompt in responding to Bangladesh, India's calmness is being very closely watched. Undoubtedly, many Bangladeshis feel that the government should maintain friendly relations with both these two countries and benefit from their growing economic might. Still, there is a section in the country which believes that the country should play China as a counter-balance to India and this will likely turn the case in their favour.

The best example of Bangladesh's perception of India can be ascertained from the phrase popular in that country ‘India promises while China delivers'. Under the Awami League regime, India-Bangladesh relations are at a new high. India's $1 billion line of credit to Bangladesh is definitely one of the most important steps in strengthening the relationship between the two nations. However, it is facing criticism on the grounds of high rate of interest, strict conditions and delay in implementation.

Considering India's economic standing, a $2.9 billion loan for the Padma Multipurpose Bridge would not have been a difficult proposition. If India finds this option too difficult, there are many other alternatives for India to help Bangladesh. For instance, India could have mediated with and influenced the World Bank to reconsider its decision. To become a global power, India has to maintain its position of influence in the South Asian region. A little innovation and prompt reaction would help India achieve this goal.

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jul 26, 2012 22:14 IST