There are two key reasons why Bangladesh Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen’s three-day official visit to New Delhi is being viewed with significance in India. First, it was his maiden foreign tour since assuming charge a little over a month ago after Jatiya Sangsad elections in Bangladesh. Second, it produced a substantive outcome in the form of signing of four Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and exchange of views between Momen and the top Indian brass on the Rohingya refugee, an issue of immense importance to Bangladesh bearing the burden of more than a million refugees from Rakhine province of Myanmar for more than a year now despite being a small economy with limited resources to take care of such a large number of displaced persons.
On the Rohingya issue, the Indian leadership assured cooperation for the refugees’ safe, sustained and early repatriation. Momen’s proposal for creating a ‘safe haven’ for the refugees on their return from Bangladesh and its monitoring by India, China and ASEAN merits serious consideration because it gives New Delhi a chance to play a key role as a South Asian power in its own backyard.
As part of its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi government, India always takes note of giving importance to the South Asian leaders choosing New Delhi as their first port of call. One only has to recall the trips made by prime ministers and foreign ministers of Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives in recent years. Similar was the case of Momen’s visit to Delhi. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who co-chaired the JCC meeting with Momen, remembered to record this. “We value your presence here. As a sign of the priority you attach to our partnership especially the fact that you have chosen to make India a destination for your first visit in your current capacity,” she said in her opening statement at the JCC meeting.
Momen’s visit to the Indian capital was far from that of a new Foreign Minister’s familiarization trip to a crucial neighbour. He is already well known to some of veteran Indian diplomats like Hardeep Singh Puri and Ashok Mukherjee because all of them had been their countries’ Permanent Representatives to the United Nations. In fact, both Puri and Mukherjee had separate meetings with him recalling old acquaintances and their New York days. The bonhomie and the outcome of his visit clearly put to rest speculations in certain quarters if he chose the right time to undertake his first visit to India as Foreign Minister when parliamentary elections in India are just about three months away. Elections in India are not at all a factor in India-Bangladesh relations because strong ties between New Delhi and Dhaka have always enjoyed strong bipartisan support in India. This was best exemplified by the unanimous support the passage of the land boundary bill got in Indian parliament.
There was no reason to believe that the polls would cast a shadow over Momen’s visit because India-Bangladesh relations under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has always enjoyed robust bipartisan support in India. In fact, it is just the opposite. The first high-level political engagement between the two countries so early in the third consecutive tenure of Sheikh Hasina government was absolutely warranted.
The engagement between the two governments under an established institutional mechanism like the Joint Consultative Committee is not and should not be inhabited by any change or government in either country. What is important is to maintain the momentum in bilateral relations which is already there and further build on it. India-Bangladesh relations should not be seen through the narrow prism of politics or time, given the expansive agenda of the JCC as well as in the specific projects between Bangladesh and India. Sushma Swaraj reflected that when she said that “we see the JCC process not only as a means to take stock of the progress achieved recently in our bilateral cooperation agenda but also as an opportunity to set in place a forward looking vision for the next five years.”The tone and tenor of such a view was set by Modi himself when Momen began his official engagements in Delhi by calling on the Indian Prime Minister. Modi had pitched for projecting India-Bangladesh ties as a role model not only to South Asia but also to the other parts of the world with the two countries having peacefully and amicably resolved their land and territorial water boundaries. One cannot but remember how territorial disputes have bedevilled India’s relations with China and Pakistan and such disputes are still hampering relations between China and many countries in South East Asia and East Asia and between countries elsewhere in the world. Sushma carried on from Modi left. She said “our goals should be to set ambitious goals for our system to reach in a short term so that our friendship remains a model for good neighbourly relations across the world.”
The JCC meeting held within just an over a month of the new Hasina government taking over is highly encouraging. Because Momen, in his very first public comments after taking charge, talked about economic diplomacy and regional cooperation which formed an important pillar of India-Bangladesh relations. Much of the wide range of India-Bangladesh agenda has its ramifications for South Asian and South East Asian cooperation given the geographical locations of the two countries. Connectivity, water resources and power projects between India and Bangladesh apart from being purely bilateral are also part of regional cooperation and Momen’s visit should be seen in consonance with that larger picture.
Relations with Bangladesh have received a much higher priority under Modi because many bilateral projects which had been under discussion for several years were implemented in the last five years under Modi. In fact, 90bilateral agreements have been signed since Modi visited Bangladesh in June 2015 and some of them foray into new and high technology areas for the first time. What particularly makes a strong case for a strong India-Bangladesh relation is that the two countries are the fastest growing economies in the world and that Bangladesh is India’s largest development partner accounting for 30% of India’s concessional trade and that India’s grant-in-aid projects and credit lines are aimed at backing Hasina’s pledge to make Bangladesh a middle income country by 2021 and a developed country by 2041.
At the JCC meeting, Sushma Swaraj also outlined broad vision areas for the future of Dhaka-Delhi relations: strengthening bilateral partnership in defence, security especially against terror groups which are trying to strike at the very roots of Bangladesh, creation of cross-border infrastructure links both in energy and transport to support economic development in both the countries. She also made a strong pitch for broadening the bilateral ties to ensure that people-to-people contacts are developed and the private sector are involved and invested complimenting the efforts of the two governments in this regard.
Arunabha Bhattacharya is a foreign policy researcher in New Delhi