Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s sudden visit to Dhaka earlier this week has set off intense speculation in the diplomatic and political establishments of the two countries.
The two-day visit was announced just a day before Shringla, who was the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh until last year, landed in Dhaka on a special Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft late Tuesday morning.
Shringla carried an ‘important message’ from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina, who he met the same evening at ‘Gonobhaban’, her official residence.
It is the content of this ‘message’ which set off a lot of speculation. That meeting at Gonobhaban lasted for nearly 90 minutes.
It was officially announced that Shringla conveyed to the Bangladesh Prime Minister India’s decision to share the Covid-19 vaccine, which is undergoing trials, with Bangladesh as soon as it receives certification.
Shringla also told the mediapersons in Dhaka that he conveyed India’s commitment to expedite infrastructure and other projects it is implementing in Bangladesh to Sheikh Hasina.
It would, however, be naive to presume that the foreign secretary undertook a visit — his first, in fact —to a country during the ongoing pandemic just to deliver these messages to the executive head of that country.
These messages, said top sources in Delhi’s South Block which houses the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), could have easily been conveyed through normal diplomatic channels or even through India’s outgoing High Commissioner to Dhaka, Riva Ganguly Das.
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Shringla to discuss ties with India’s immediate neighbours. It was at that meeting that a decision was taken to send Shringla to Dhaka.
The reason, said the MEA sources, was to preempt Beijing’s plan to expand its footprint in Bangladesh. China is already financing infrastructure projects worth $22 billion in Bangladesh and is planning to extend a fresh line of credit to Dhaka.
China had, in June this year, granted duty free access to 97 per cent of products from Bangladesh. These include packaged marine products and leather goods. With this, 8,256 items from Bangladesh now enjoy zero-tariff in China.
A number of other development assistance to Bangladesh is also being planned by Beijing. The MEA sources said that China is especially interested in investing in projects in northern Bangladesh that borders North Bengal.
China is believed to be lining up a number of investment proposals ranging from river ports along the Teesta to townships, economic zones, hydel power plants, roads and bridges, tourism projects and factories, especially in Bangladesh’s Rangpur division.
Moreover, China has been prodding Pakistan to boost its ties with Bangladesh as part of Beijing’s sinister plan to isolate India in its neighbourhood. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan called up Sheikh Hasina in the third week of July and raised the Kashmir issue with her.
Though Hasina reportedly snubbed Khan and told him firmly that Kashmir was India’s internal matter, it set alarm bells ringing in Delhi.
The development indicated that Pakistan, which has its share of sympathisers in Bangladesh’s political, bureaucratic, diplomatic and military establishments as well as in civil society, will aggressively woo Dhaka.
A senior official in the MEA said that Beijing is also very keen in stepping up military ties with Dhaka. Beijing is especially keen on forging close links between the navies of the two countries with the objective of gaining greater access to the Bay of Bengal.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has already established close ties with Myanmar and Thailand and its warships visit naval facilities in those two countries on a regular basis.
If the PLA Navy can secure a foothold in Bangladesh, it will be able to keep a watch on Indian Navy’s activities and facilities in the Bay of Bengal, especially the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
All these developments prompted New Delhi to, as the senior MEA official put it, “inject a booster dose” in Indo-Bangla ties. Hence, Shringla was dispatched to Dhaka with a basket of proposals and promises.
Giving priority to Bangladesh and sharing the Covid-19 vaccine (when it is developed) with it is just one of the many promises that has been conveyed by Modi to Sheikh Hasina through Shringla.
A major proposal was close cooperation between the two countries on post-pandemic economic recovery. New Delhi is believed to have requested Bangladesh to prepare a wish list to narrow down its trade deficit with India.
Shringla also conveyed to Hasina details of New Delhi’s concrete plans to step up Indian investments in Bangladesh. The contours of proposed connectivity projects with Northeast India through Bangladesh and the benefits that will accrue to Bangladesh from those were also discussed with the Bangladesh Prime Minister.
That Shringla is the only foreign emissary that Hasina met since the outbreak of the pandemic is significant. MEA sources said that Hasina was happy with the meeting and has appreciated Modi’s outreach to her country at a time when the world is in the grip of this pandemic.
Shringla met his Bangladesh counterpart Masud Bin Momen on Wednesday. Significantly, he held virtual meetings from his suite at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka with Bangladesh army chief and other top functionaries.
India has promised Bangladesh that it will take up the matter of repatriation of the million-odd Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh with Myanmar. Bangladesh is keen that India, which will take up a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council in January next year, supports Dhaka’s bid to raise the issue at the council.
Sheikh Hasina promised Shringla that security cooperation between the two countries will be enhanced and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) will engage wholeheartedly with India’s Border Security Force (BSF) to check and pre-empt trans-border crimes.
The MEA sources said that Shringla’s two-day visit to Dhaka was “very fruitful”. Dhaka has successfully allayed India’s misgivings about Beijing’s growing footprint in Bangladesh.
In this context, it will be pertinent to note Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr A K Abdul Momen’s statement earlier this month that Bangladesh has “blood ties” with India while its relationship with China is only economic in nature.
Sheikh Hasina reportedly repeated this sentiment during her meeting with Shringla. The Foreign Secretary returned to New Delhi a happy man, content that Indo-Bangla ties are on a much more firm footing now.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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