"Beijing is all set to gain huge visibility in Bangladesh at a time when India is hardly able to offer anything tangible to its eastern neighbour - except rancor over alleged illegal migration. Without needlessly hitting panic buttons, China's growing presence in Bangladesh should cause Delhi to ponder."
By Subir Bhaumik

Competitive radicalism between political parties has again denied India a chance to take forward its relations with Bangladesh. If the BJP's opposition, coupled with that of Trinamul Congress and Asom Gana Parishad, prevented the Congress from formalizing the land boundary agreement and signing the Teesta water sharing deal with Bangladesh, it is the Congress in Assam now raising hell over a proposal to allow visa-free entry to Bangladesh children and senior citizens.

India's ministry of external affairs (MEA) had come up with this proposal ahead of its minister Sushma Swaraj's visit to Dhaka beginning Wednesday. The proposal also sought visa-on-arrival for all other Bangladesh nationals - and visa-free entry for those below 10 or above 65 years.

But it was Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's turn to play spoilsport this time. Pushed to the wall by dissidents within the Congress for the party's poor showing in parliamentary elections and attacked by the BJP for votebank politics with illegal migrants from Bangladesh, Gogoi decided to play the patriot and oppose the MEA proposals on grounds of national security.

The BJP was not willing to be stumped by the Congress in an attempt to look nice to Bangladesh. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was quick to veto the MEA proposals. What Sushma Swaraj may now offer Bangladesh at the most is long term multiple entry visas for children and senior citizens.

So, India will again miss out on doing something that would have gone down really well with the people of Bangladesh, and not just the government in Dhaka. Sushma Swaraj would surely reiterate India's commitment to sign the Teesta water sharing deal and implement the land boundary agreement without being able to provide any time frame. All she can expect is that Dhaka would repose its faith in the Narendra Modi magic to get West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to agree to these deals after having opposed it for five years.

While these long pending sovereign commitments by India continue to hang in uncertainty, Delhi is now going to miss out on a chance to placate Dhaka with a visa package that would have struck a chord with the poor and middle class in Bangladesh, considering the large numbers who come to India for treatment, education, tourism and much else. This, at a time, when China is really warming up to Bangladesh's present government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. That should not alarm Delhi unnecessarily because Hasina has been courting both India and China as well as Japan and Russia to stump the West, which had been opposed to the Jan 5 parliamentary elections that brought her back to power. The West, specially the US, said the elections were hardly representative as the leading opposition party, the BNP, boycotted them. But Hasina insists she was not to blame for the BNP boycott.

During her recent visit to China, a raft of deals were signed. These include a joint venture to establish a 1,320 megawatt coal-fired power plant, an economic and technical cooperation agreement, commitments on disaster rescue equipment and on a flood prevention and management study. The two countries signed a MOU to create a Chinese economic and investment zone in the main port city of Chittagong.

Bangladesh and China are also discussing construction of a second deep sea port at Sonadia, a tiny island in the Bay of Bengal. Sonadia may emerge as a major regional trade hub as it provides sea access to China's Yunnan province, India's landlocked northeastern states, the Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan.

China has been widely tipped to win the Sonadia contract, but Bangladesh opposes Beijing's attempt to dictate the port design. That may soon be sorted out though. With one Chinese company getting the contract to construct the 6.15 km railroad bridge on the mighty Padma river, it is the country's biggest infrastructure project.

Beijing is all set to gain huge visibility in Bangladesh at a time when India is hardly able to offer anything tangible to its eastern neighbour - except rancor over alleged illegal migration. Without needlessly hitting panic buttons, China's growing presence in Bangladesh should cause Delhi to ponder.

(24.06.2014 - Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist and author. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])


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