‘Sari brigade’ can boost India-Bangladesh ties

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By : Seema Sengupta

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s maiden overseas visit to Bangladesh, coming Wednesday, is expected to allay concerns of a large section of Bangladeshi intelligentsia about the newly anointed Narendra Modi governments’ foreign policy focus.

Many believe that by appointing a retired hardcore Army General as Swaraj’s deputy in the external affairs ministry, Prime Minister Modi has actually exposed an underlying intent of combining diplomacy with strategic coercion. Yes, India lives in a volatile neighborhood and the prevailing uncertainty in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region coupled with border tension with China does have a direct impact on the country’s security. But then, New Delhi must not forget that the repercussions of Afghanistan possibly collapsing into a deadly civil war once the US discontinues all military operations in 2016 will be felt across the region.

Thus, any effort to stabilize Afghanistan must be multilateral and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) will be the fulcrum of peace building in the given situation. Modi, therefore, needs to be reminded that diplomacy at the end of the day is all about reinforcing the art of de-escalation. His love for a muscular foreign policy has been a cause for concern in the subcontinent especially to the smaller neighbors who are not that powerful militarily.

Leading Bangladesh watchers candidly admit that never before has this eastern neighbor of India witnessed an intense debate about the attitude of an Indian regime toward the sub-continental underdogs. Surely, Swaraj — the first lady to hold this vital portfolio independently — has a task cut out. It certainly requires a herculean effort to convince the masses in Bangladesh that Modi’s muscle-flexing views on the sensitive issue of migration aired sometime ago was a pre-election rhetoric aimed at discrediting the then ruling Manmohan Singh’s government. In fact, these very illegal Bangladeshi migrant laborers, who work for peanuts, can dramatically improve the cost advantage of India’s low-end labor force if only they are provided with legitimate work permits instead of voting rights.

Given Swaraj’s vast experience of handling foreign dignitaries as the leader of opposition for a fairly long period, explaining her government’s honest intention of converting South Asia into a composite economic ecosystem should not be that difficult. After all, Swaraj does share a special rapport with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina since the days of the Vajpayee government. The two ladies have very good bonding as they gift each other saris and are on the same wavelength on issues like women empowerment, literacy and other social and political aspects concerning South Asia.

Perhaps, Swaraj will do well to remind Hasina that the “Sari brigade” can indeed revolutionize Indo-Bangladesh relationship. Besides, Hasina has already made the right noises by asking Modi to consider Bangladesh as his second home. In another significant policy development, the Bangladeshi leadership has agreed to allow transit facility for food grains to the landlocked northeastern states of India through its territory by using Bangladesh’s infrastructure.
This is an immensely praiseworthy move. Due to various bottlenecks, the entire northeastern region in India was suffering from supply-side deficiencies for long. In fact in 2012 also, Dhaka had allowed India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to transport heavy machineries, turbines and related cargo to Palatana — the site of a 726MW mega thermal power project in the far-eastern state of Tripura — through its territory. It will be a boon for India if Modi can pick up where his predecessor Singh left so far as bilateral relationship with Bangladesh is concerned.

The signing of an extradition treaty to help clamp down on insurgency in India’s northeastern region and initiation of a liberal visa regime during Singh’s tenure gives the Modi government enough flexibility to push through additional confidence building measures in the coming days. The new visa regime, for example, will immensely benefit India’s medical tourism sector, especially in the East, as the majority of foreign patients arriving here regularly are from Bangladesh.

Thus, it is imperative for Modi to ensure that he does not let go of this opportunity to bolster the bilateral relationship via health-diplomacy. This sector has the potential to contribute approximately $5 billion to the Indian economy annually. Surely, Modi recognizes that Bangladesh is too crucial for India to be treated shabbily. Dhaka needs to be given adequate economic leverage and allowed to enjoy a bigger share of India’s economic success story. The 2004 South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) has opened up the huge Indian market to Bangladeshi manufacturers.
Besides, Bangladesh is growing at a steady rate of 5 percent and trade imbalance has reduced significantly in its favor.
Moreover, Modi must harness Bangladesh’s strengths for developing national as well as regional infrastructure. The proposed Kunming to Calcutta road route via Bangladesh is one such project. Introducing more rail routes and launching river transport service between Dhaka and Calcutta needs to be on the top of Modi’s agenda. Also, reviving the Bangladesh-Myanmar-India gas pipeline project will simultaneously enhance the regions’ energy security and improve the prospects of manufacturing activity.

Dispute over pending land-boundary deal and river Teesta water sharing agreement must be resolved judiciously without compromising the legitimate needs of interested parties. Finally, an inquisitive Modi can consider replicating Bangladesh’s unique non-profit Grameen Bank model to further strengthen India’s rural economy, empower womenfolk and reduce poverty significantly.

Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.
Email: sengupta.seema@gmail.com

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