Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurance to visiting Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of an “early resolution” to the Teesta water dispute has firmly brought the elephant in the room to the fore. Mr. Modi’s statement, made in the presence of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has been widely welcomed. It defined both India’s commitment to the Teesta water-sharing agreement and the Central government’s commitment to working with the West Bengal government to conclude the agreement for which the framework was initialled in 2011. The holdout is clearly political; hence the resolution will only come from political dialogue, and must be forged quickly. Both governments would do well to understand the advice hidden in Sheikh Hasina’s message during a speech where she praised “all parties and all politicians” for coming together and clearing the land boundary agreement (LBA), to swap enclaves India and Bangladesh held in each other’s territory, in 2015. “Like in 1971, the entire Indian people came together for Bangladesh for it [LBA],” Ms. Hasina said, stressing the need for bipartisanship to prevail in ties. Credit for the strength of the relationship should go also to the previous Manmohan Singh government. Dr. Singh and Ms. Hasina expended significant political capital to transform ties, particularly on cooperation on terrorism, and the frameworks for the land swap and water-sharing arrangements.
Nevertheless, it is to the credit of both Mr. Modi and Ms. Hasina that India and Bangladesh were able to make progress on other issues such as energy cooperation and connectivity, signing a total of 22 agreements, with another 14 in the field of private investment and MoUs. The MoU on a framework for defence cooperation essentially formalised existing arrangements for defence exchanges, military training and high-level defence visits, while the agreement of cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy endorsed the existing training programmes for Bangladeshi scientists at Indian facilities. India’s announcement of further lines of credit of $5 billion, including $500 million for defence purchases, the largest such LoC extended to any country so far, is important. In a context where connectivity is the new currency to extend one’s influence and where China is taking the lead with its Belt & Road initiative, India has chosen well to extend funds to rebuild old railway lines, and construct bridges, power plants, ports and roads in Bangladesh. Plans to revive inland waterway channels are also under way, and hold the potential to increase connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan. Not only will these measures strengthen the bonds with Bangladesh, with which India shares its longest international border as well as historical bonds, they will help India connect to itself, to the benefit especially of the northeastern States.