For most of the past four decades, India and Bangladesh have been distant neighbours, separated by distrust and suspicion despite their visceral connections of geography and ecology, language and culture, economics and politics. There have been periods of acute stasis and also moments of hope, when a basic transformation in the relationship seemed possible. But never before has the overall situation been quite as propitious as it is now. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in his second tenure as the head of the United Progressive Alliance government and the position of India as a growth pillar in South Asia and the world means the logic of regional integration is more compelling than ever before. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed is once again Prime Minister, this time with a majority so convincing that she need not keep looking over her shoulder to second guess what the Bangladesh National Party of Khaleda Zia might say or do in response to the improvement in bilateral ties with India. Notwithstanding the benign domestic political situation the Congress and the Awami League find themselves in, the governments have a two-year window to bring about a fundamental shift in the structure and content of the bilateral relationship before electoral compulsions kick in once again. And judging by the success of Sheikh Hasina’s recent visit to Delhi, a fine start has been made.
India has promised a $1 billion line of credit to Bangladesh and a pruning of the negative list of Bangladeshi products that are denied preferential access to Indian markets. It has also agreed to push for better border connectivity so that bilateral trade can increase, and Teesta water sharing has been flagged for discussion. On its part, Bangladesh has dropped its opposition to granting India transit rights. The Agartala-Akhaura rail link will now be developed, creating the potential for railway freight to be sent from Kolkata to Tripura and thence to the rest of the North-East via Bangladesh. On the security front, Dhaka demonstrated its willingness to accommodate Indian concerns by facilitating the handover of ULFA leader Paresh Barua. All this suggests that both countries are serious about opening a new chapter. But one ought not to minimise the challenges that lie ahead. One test will be whether India is prepared to allow Bangladeshi garment manufacturers preferential market access. Another will be its willingness to craft agreements on the equitable sharing of all river waters. As the bigger economy, India needs to go the extra mile in giving a boost to its neighbour’s economic potential, especially considering that Sheikh Hasina has moved so far in addressing longstanding Indian requests on transit.