Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi Visit, ‘With an Eye on General Elections’

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to Delhi on Tuesday –on a 4-day (September 5 to 8) visit and signed seven Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on issues related to water sharing, railways, space, nuclear energy, broadcasting, information technology, science, capacity building among railway and judicial personnel of the two countries –amid reaffirmation of bilateral pledge to boost trade links and people-to-people connectivity.

“On the agenda are issues related to connectivity, energy, water resources, trade & investment, border management & security, development partnership and regional & multilateral matters,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs Arindam Bagchi tweeted the day Sheikh Hasina arrived in Delhi.

The two neighbors have reached an important agreement –among the seven pacts signed, on sharing the waters of a common river, the Kushiyara. The pact will be welcomed the most in Dhaka as it is the first such deal the two neighboring countries have inked in more than 25 years and is seen as a breakthrough in addressing an issue that has cast a shadow on their otherwise close ties.

A pact to share water resources from transboundary rivers that run downstream from the Himalayas from India into Bangladesh has long been a priority for Bangladesh, a lower riparian state that suffers from crippling water shortages. The rivers sustain South Asia’s agriculture and meet the needs of very large cities in a region that is becoming increasingly water-stressed.

The two countries share 54 transboundary rivers. The agreement reached on the Kushiyara is the first that the two neighbors have signed in 25 years.

But an agreement that Bangladesh has sought for sharing waters on one of the major transboundary rivers, the Teesta, has eluded the two countries for more than a decade, largely due to opposition from the West Bengal government in India, through which the river runs.

Bangladesh has been hoping for a treaty on the sharing of the waters of the River Teesta. The text of a pact relating to this, which gives India the right to 42.5 percent of this river’s water and Bangladesh the right to 37.5 percent, has existed for over a decade.  An agreement was to be signed in September 2011 during the visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka. However, India pulled out and a treaty remains elusive to date.

No progress was made on clinching a deal on the Teesta. Hasina reminded her hosts to conclude a treaty on the Teesta “at an early date.”

“India and Bangladesh have resolved many outstanding issues and we hope that all outstanding issues, including Teesta water-sharing treaty, would be concluded at an early date,” Sheikh Hasina said.

Tuesday’s pact to share waters of the Kushiyara is expected to help alleviate some of Dhaka’s concerns –Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi is seen as politically significant because it takes place ahead of general elections in Bangladesh next year. With the U.S., U.K. and Japan repeatedly stressing the need for a free and fair election, she needs India’s support.

China is a strategic partner of Bangladesh. It is Dhaka’s biggest trade partner. At a time when Bangladesh’s economy is shrinking, which is reflected in its depleting forex reserves, Dhaka needs Chinese support.
So far, Bangladesh has managed to maintain a balance with its foreign partners. It has been able to maintain friendly relations with all countries, a key objective of its foreign policy. How long Hasina’s government will be able to maintain good relations with all remains to be seen.

The Diplomat

For Delhi, building close ties with Bangladesh is a priority as it is trying to fend off inroads made by China in neighboring South Asian countries with Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Both countries are working on a raft of road, rail and waterway projects –India is to extend nearly $9.5 billion to Bangladesh in concessional loans.

But keeping India happy is not an easy task for Bangladesh, specially at a time when the latter is under pressure from China, which is closely monitoring Bangladesh’s moves with regard to its relations with India and the U.S. China has already warned Bangladesh that if it joins the Quad, Sino-Bangladesh relations will be impacted.

The two country leaders also inaugurated the 5.13 km Rupsha rail bridge, a key part of the 64.7 km Khulna-Mongla Port broad gauge rail project.

They also announced the completion of the first phase of a thermal power project. Modi and Sheikh Hasina jointly unveiled Unit-I of the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project. The project is constructed under India’s concessional financing scheme and will add 1320 MW to Bangladesh’s National Grid.

PM Modi said the project would increase the availability of “affordable electricity” in Bangladesh and called Dhaka “our biggest development and trade partner in the region.”

The two neighboring countries have shared close ties since Sheikh Hasina took power in 2009. Calling India Bangladesh’s most important neighbor, she said that “Bangladesh-India bilateral relations are known to be a role model for neighborhood diplomacy.”

Bangladesh remains one of India’s top export destinations. India exports good worth $16.1 billion, from agricultural and allied products ($5.5 billion) to the readymade garments ($3.5 billion) and engineering goods ($2.8 billion).

Both countries’ bilateral trade has doubled in the last five years to reach $18 billion last year. India’s trade surplus with Bangladesh is ar $14 billion.

Bangladesh has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It has boomed on the back of a growing garment export industry. However, it is among South Asian countries seeking a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as it grapples with depleting foreign exchange reserves.

Before visiting Delhi, Sheikh Hasina told a news agency that her country’s economy remains strong despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and higher oil and food prices. (Aggregated from reports by Business Today, VOANews, The Diplomat.)

Honorary contributors to DesPardes: Adil Khan, Ajaz Ahmed, Ammar Jafri, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, Dr. Syed M. Ali, G. R. Baloch, Hasham Saddique, Jamil Usman, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Majid Ahmed, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Mustafa Jivanjee, Nusrat Jamshed, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Hamza, Shahid Nayeem, Syed Hamza Gilani, Syed Hasan Javed, Syed M. Ali, Tahir Sohail