Legacy and pragmatism drive India-Bangladesh relations

Despite the looming Chinese presence, Hasina has managed to keep India happy

43-Sheikh-Hasina-with-Prime-Minister-Narendra-Modi Ties that bind: Sheikh Hasina with Prime Minister Narendra Modi | J. Suresh

TWO STEEL CHIMNEYS and plumes of smoke. Pictures of nuclear power plants rarely make for good PR. But in Dhaka, the norms are different. As you step out of the airport, pictures of the Rooppur nuclear power plant greet you from the elevated metro towers. Along with the Padma bridge, the nuclear plant, too, represents Bangladesh’s growing aspirations.

The 1,200MW power plant being built in Rooppur is a trilateral project supported by Russia and India. It is the first nuclear plant in Bangladesh and the first to be constructed by India abroad. It is expected to be fully operational by 2027.

The Rooppur plant is just one among the multiple infrastructure projects in which India has joined hands with Bangladesh. On November 1, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina reiterated the importance of the burgeoning relationship by relaunching the Akhaura-Agartala railway line via videoconferencing. Modi said India was proud of being Bangladesh’s biggest development partner. The two leaders also inaugurated the Khulna-Mongla Port railway line and unit II of the Maitree super thermal power project. The Khulna-Mongla link is a 65km broad-gauge line connecting Bangladesh’s second largest port Mongla with the existing line in Khulna, the third largest city in Bangladesh, offering eastern India better sea access.

The reopening of the rail link with Bangladesh will help India overcome the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ problem in the northeast―the Siliguri corridor that connects it to the mainland. It will reduce the distance between Agartala and Kolkata from 1,600km to 500km.

In the past few years, Bangladesh has launched several connectivity projects like the Maitri Setu, a 1.9km bridge on the Feni river connecting Sabroom in Tripura to Ramgarh in Chittagong, providing an easier access to the Chittagong port. “We are creating a new era in South Asia by providing connectivity to India,’’ said Hasina at the virtual inauguration of the bridge in 2021.

44-Bangladesh-has-offered-India-the-use Access allowed: Bangladesh has offered india the use of Chittagong port, providing a maritime opening for northereastern states | Shutterstock

There is a lot at stake for India. Apart from economic ties, there is also the security angle. Hasina has not only been instrumental in stamping out jihadi elements, but has also played her part in keeping India’s northeast safe from insurgency. No wonder Modi chose Bangladesh to be his first foreign destination after the break caused by the pandemic.

While India and Bangladesh might be at the peak of their relationship, it is not easy to ignore the China angle. Hasina’s dream of leading Bangladesh to new heights is also powered by Chinese assistance. A report published by AidData in August found that between 2018 and 2021, China's development assistance and other commitments to Bangladesh soared from $994 million to $3.4 billion. According to various estimates, there are 23 projects worth $22.56 billion that China supports in Bangladesh. It is a key partner in ‘Vision 2041’, a 20-year plan to transform Bangladesh into a developed nation, and is investing $1.7 billion every year as part of the project. “Over the past few years, connectivity and infrastructure have featured strongly [in our plans],’’ said Delwar Hossain, professor of international relations at Dhaka University. “China took advantage of this opportunity, which was a need for developing countries. Bangladesh is not an exception.”

Hasina has, however, managed to maintain these deep economic ties with China without ruffling feathers in India. Bangladesh imports goods worth $9.7 billion annually from India. The taka-rupee dual currency card, which came into effect in September, is a step in the right direction. Both countries are also negotiating a free trade agreement, although Bangladesh is looking at RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement among the Asia-Pacific nations), a problem that the Hasina government will have to deal with later.

“The father of our nation (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) asserted after the 1971 war that Bangladesh would have a different policy,’’ said Hossain. “He learnt the lessons from Pakistan. The kind of foreign policy he formulated meant friendship with all and malice towards none. He emphasised India as our number one friend. Our prime minister lived in India in exile. But, in 1996, [after becoming prime minister] she visited China first. She had prepared herself for a post Cold War ideology where polarity should not matter.”

It is a fine balance that Hasina has mastered and she remains the only leader in South Asia who has managed such a feat. While Bangladesh supports 'One China' policy, it has also unveiled its Indo-Pacific priorities for peacekeeping, peace building and counter-terrorism initiatives in support of “rules-based international order” and “free and uninterrupted movement and trade” enunciated by the west and supported by India.

It helps that the India-Bangladesh relationship was forged in blood. The first Bangladeshi cadet recently graduated from the National Defence Academy this month, and Dhaka has announced fellowships in the name of Mujibur Rahman for 200 descendants of Indian soldiers who died or were seriously injured in the 1971 war. Bangladesh is determined to use the Indian legacy in the liberation war to keep bilateral ties robust. This is a bond that Hasina has personally nurtured.