India aims to heal and strengthen ties with Bangladesh and reaffirm its commitment to the country’s economic development in a bid to counter China's rising influence in neighbouring nations when Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in Dhaka this week.
While officially it has been business as usual in bilateral ties, the relationship suffered after the nationwide debate and protests in India over the proposed National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
The Ministry of External Affairs says the two-day visit from March 26, Modi’s first foreign trip since the COVID-19 pandemic, will focus on Bangladesh’s celebrations of Mujib Borsho, the birth centenary of its founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of its independence. However, officials hint the visit also aims to normalize bilateral relations.
The trip also has political significance in India. At a time when Modi’s BJP is strongly challenging the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the prime minister’s visit to Bangladesh may serve to signal voters.
Modi will visit the Matua temple at Orakandi in Kashiani Upazila of Gopalganj, a location of extreme religious significance to the state’s 1.8-crore Matua community, which had migrated from Bangladesh to India because of the country’s partition in 1947.
This community has a direct impact on the elections in about 70 assembly seats in West Bengal. Modi’s upcoming visit to the birthplace of Harichand Thakur, the founder of the Matua sect is already being publicized by the BJP in West Bengal.
Light on trade
The agenda of the trip is expected to be light on the economic and trade front with only three MoUs expected to be signed. While both governments have kept details of the pacts under wraps, officials from both nations have said they are expected to include a pact on cooperation in disaster management and an agreement between central government institutions. However, some discussions on energy, transport and infrastructure are expected between both Prime Ministers, officials said.
"With an eye on Bangladesh’s abundance of rivers, India's focus is also on strengthening economic cooperation in the ‘Blue Economy’ programme which spans exploration of hydrocarbons, marine resources and deep-sea fishing," a person in the know, said.
But the issue of trade will remain the elephant in the room. In spite of sharing a 4,000-km border, trade between India and neighboring Bangladesh has remained low. It was an estimated $9.4 billion in FY20, the last full year before the pandemic. That year, total trade had contracted by 7.7 percent. In FY21, it was $6.5 billion in the April-December period.
More than 85 percent of trade is made up of exports from India, spanning a wide range of sectors from raw materials such as cotton, plastics, cereals and organic chemicals, to processed goods such as petroleum, machinery and vehicles. In return, Bangladesh wants Indian retailers to buy more apparels. It is the second largest exporter of apparels in the world.
"Dhaka has been trying to pursue India to source more from the country, especially in the crucial apparel sector, a key driver for jobs and industry in Bangladesh. Many Indian companies have already started buying from Bangladesh but given that India has a competitive apparel sector as well, it is not prudent for the government to back Bangladesh publicly," a Commerce Department official, said.