The clear message from the visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Bangladesh is that the new government, as the previous one, places great importance on Dhaka-New Delhi relations.
The visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Bangladesh saw the National Democratic Alliance government start off on a positive note with India’s important eastern neighbour. New Delhi relaxed some visa rules for Bangladeshi nationals; the frequency of the cross-border train is to be increased; there is to be a new bus service that will connect Guwahati and Shillong with Dhaka. India has also committed to sharing 100 MW of power from the Palatana power project in Tripura. It is encouraging that after an election campaign that bristled with negative references to Bangladesh, the new government has chosen to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor in reaching out to Dhaka, even though the Manmohan Singh government could not complete its own bilateral initiatives. Signalling broad continuity in ties, Ms. Swaraj has promised that her government would make efforts to take those initiatives to their conclusion, even though, disappointingly for Bangladesh, she gave no time-frame. With its majority in Parliament, the BJP needs only to convince itself that the Land Border agreement is beneficial to both sides. On the Teesta river water-sharing agreement, the Modi government will need to convince Mamata Banerjee, but it will take more than the phone call that the External Affairs Minister made to the West Bengal Chief Minister. The clear message from the trip is that the new government, as the previous one, places great importance on Dhaka-New Delhi relations. Ms. Swaraj even acknowledged the UPA government’s contributions by saying that “a great deal has been accomplished in the... relationship in the last few years,” including progress in the “areas of security, economic development, sub-regional cooperation, opening of the Indian market to Bangladeshi goods, border infrastructure, energy and people-to-people exchanges.” Dhaka’s cooperation will be critical to India’s Look East policy.
Bangladesh will watch to see if the continuity with UPA extends to another trait: playing favourites with Bangladesh’s political parties. India’s main engagement has to be with the government of Bangladesh. But as Ms. Swaraj said in an interview, the effort must also be “to establish an inclusive partnership with Bangladesh, and we want to do it by taking every section of [Bangladeshi] society into confidence.” The country has yet to emerge from a phase of great internal turmoil. Ms. Swaraj wisely refrained from making any comments on the January elections, the credibility of which has been widely questioned. Her meeting with Bangladesh National Party leader Khaleda Zia, although she is no longer Leader of the Opposition, was a well-advised move, signalling that New Delhi still considers it a significant political party.