India’s new external affairs minister is visiting Bangladesh on a three-day “goodwill” visit. Sushma Swaraj will meet with Bangladeshi foreign minister Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali during the trip as well as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Hasina, incidentally, was the only South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leader who did not make an appearance at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 26 inauguration as she was on a separate bilateral visit at the time. During Swaraj’s visit, the two countries will make progress on negotiations for several important initiatives, including the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), the Teesta river water sharing pact, Bangladesh’s militancy problem, market access, and the problem of illegal Bangladeshi migration into India.
The LBA will require parliamentary approval in India — something the former Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was unable to achieve. Under Narendra Modi, the LBA is more likely to be approved this year. Ratifying the LBA would be a major step towards formalizing the border between the two countries and resolving the issue of outstanding enclaves.
Ahead of Swaraj’s visit, several Indian news outlets wrote in support of closer ties between India and Bangladesh under the new government. The Hindustan Times, for instance, writes that “India must offer a roadmap for ties that keeps Bangladesh interested and benefits both countries.” It adds that Swaraj’s “challenge will be to persuade Dhaka to look beyond sensitive issues and perhaps offer infrastructure cooperation as an area that placates critics.” The sensitive issues being referred to here include the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants into India, which has prompted somewhat of a backlash from some Indian politicians in West Bengal and other regions. Modi raised the issue during his campaign when he made statements that seemed to imply he would be receptive to receiving Hindu migrants from Bangladesh but not Muslims. “As soon as we come to power… detention camps housing Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will be done away with,” Modi told a campaign rally.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Since coming to power, however, Modi has prioritized Indian leadership in South Asia, as evidenced by his decision to invite regional leaders to his inauguration on May 26 and conducting his first trip abroad to Bhutan. With Swaraj’s trip to Bangladesh, the government has an opportunity to redefine the already-developed bilateral relationship in more pragmatic terms. The Times of India notes as much in an editorial, arguing that “the decision to invite all South Asian leaders for Mr. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony sent out positive signals to India’s neighborhood. Ms. Swaraj’s Bangladesh visit must build on this and pave the way for transformed ties with India’s vital eastern neighbor.” The editorial also argues that warmer relations with Bangladesh could help India carry forward productive ties with Pakistan: “Good relations with Bangladesh … can serve as an effective model of development, incentivizing Pakistan to change its India policy and join the growth momentum.”