India’s Neighbourhood First policy

As Bangladesh prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its liberation from Pakistan and the special role of India in that event next March, India can’t let crude electoral calculations undermine the historic transformation underway in the eastern subcontinent. Bangladesh is now the fastest growing economy in South Asia; it surpasses India on many development indicators, and it has overtaken Pakistan’s economy. However, the reopening of the Chilahati-Haldibari railway line, which had been defunct since the 1965 India-Pakistan war, is a sign of growing mutual cooperation and understanding.
This bilateral relationship is steeped in history as Bangladesh owes its creation to India’s resounding victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan. Both countries are expected to come even closer next year when India will commemorate the golden jubilee of the war and Bangladesh will celebrate 50 years of its existence. However, they need to guard against a possible twist in this picture-perfect tale in the form of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). With the high-stakes West Bengal elections due in 2021, the BJP has indicated that the Centre could start granting citizenship to refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan from January. The uproar over the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) had impacted Delhi-Dhaka ties a year ago. Hasina had dubbed the CAA and the NRC as ‘unnecessary’.
Both countries should take some time to consider how to reconcile their domestic political narratives. For example, immigration concerns would be best managed through an agreement that accepts the reality of circular migration. Indian visions of Bangladeshi hordes need to be replaced with a realisation that migrants cross in both directions. Dhaka, in turn, needs to be more honest about localised discrimination of minorities and the outward migration this has engendered.  Over the last decade, thanks to the improved political ties between Delhi and Dhaka, there has been a systematic effort at restoring the natural connectivities between West Bengal, Bangladesh and India’s Northeast.
The joint statement issued after Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina met virtually on Thursday outlines a list of initiatives to deepen cooperation. In addition to expediting a study looking into a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, the statement outlined a host of areas for cooperation, from strengthening river water transport to managing a transboundary elephant corridor and from trade liberalisation to the setting up of a CEO forum. While Hasina called India ‘our true friend,  Narendra Modi said Bangladesh was ‘a significant pillar’ of India’s Neighbourhood First policy.
Flanked by China and Pakistan, two hostile neighbours, India needs the support of nations like Bangladesh and Nepal to maintain its pre-eminent position in the subcontinent and boost its credentials in the international arena. India must allay Bangladesh’s concerns about the CAA to ensure that a presumably, all-weather friend remains firmly on its side.  

- Prabhakar Purandare

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