With meetings in Dhaka with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other officials to discuss a two year road map, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla sought to reset neighbourly relations after a strain over several issues, including the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens, the Rohingya issue and China’s increasing presence into Bangladesh infrastructure development. In addition, protests over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed visit to Dhaka in March, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had led to fears that a crack had developed in one of India’s closest people-to-people relationships.
As a result, New Delhi has been publicly and bilaterally shifting the focus to the development partnership between them, and senior officials told The Hindu that the meeting with Ms. Hasina had focused on a series of projects that will be ready by next year, in time for both the 50th year anniversary of diplomatic relations, as well as the continuation of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth centenary, when the two leaders will reschedule their meeting. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar is also expected to meet his counterpart AK Abdul Momen in a joint consultative committee meeting shortly.
Over the last few months, both sides have updated their inland water protocol, including Tripura State into the plans, started a cargo ferry service between them and India has handed over much-needed rail locomotives to Bangladesh. In addition, the two sides hope to finalise the Akhora-Agartala rail link, and the long-pending 1320 MW Khulna thermal plant, as a sign of India’s commitment to connectivity with its neighbour.
At present, 28% of India’s development budget goes to Bangladesh, which accounts for a total exposure of about $10 billion for India. Both sides will soon discuss launching an “air travel bubble” for flights so as to restart air travel between both countries after the pandemic.
When asked, officials privy to the meeting said that more difficult issues such as the protests in Bangladesh over the CAA, or China’s recent inroads were not discussed during the meeting with Ms. Hasina, adding that the “bilateral plate” between New Delhi and Dhaka was “so full” that other players did not merit any discussion at present.
According to them, Ms. Hasina was very grateful for the messages from Mr. Modi carried by Mr. Shringla. That the meeting with Ms. Hasina happened at all, is a telling sign of a thaw as the Bangladesh Premier hasn’t been meeting foreign nationals during the pandemic, including outgoing Indian High Commissioner Riva Das, who was expected to call on her before returning to Delhi in September.
New Delhi is sending to Dhaka next Vikram Doraiswami, who has dealt closely with the relationship as joint secretary for Bangladesh and Myanmar. In that position, Mr. Doraiswami was seen as the author of India’s softer position on the Rohingya refugees, when along with Mr. Shringla, who was then High Commissioner to Bangladesh, he made the first official Indian visit to Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazaar to hand over relief in September 2018.