Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in Dhaka tomorrow. His is a historic opportunity, to reimagine the relationship with Bangladesh, and to unlock the prosperity cycle that can transform Eastrn India and beyond.
To do this, a focus on the future will be needed.
Almost all the discussions in South Asia, all the time, is about the past. This is one region caught in endless cycles of memories, revenge and retribution, as if the time never moves forward. This would be the challenge that Mr Modi must overcome.
Bangladesh matters. Many Indians may think of it as a poor, weak, insignificant country, pale in significance in comparison with Pakistan or China. But with its 156 million people, it is the 8th most populous country in the world, though that fact does not seem to count much in this very crowded corner. It is a poor country, but despite a lower per capita income compared to India and Pakistan, it betters them on measures that count, higher life expectancy at birth, lower child mortality and even literacy levels. But what matters even more is its entrepreneurial culture and vast diaspora, as well as its generally tolerant ethos. A friendly Bangladesh, which is possible, allows India to break out of the Hindu versus Muslim conversation, and its troubled legacy with Pakistan. And, finally, Bangladesh is critical for prosperity of Eastern India, India's poorest but possibly the most diverse region, and particularly for its Northeastern states, a cluster of seven states that chronically suffers from insurgency problems. At the worst, a Chinese base in Bangladesh upsets India's military strategy, and therefore, if not a friend, India definitely does not want a hostile government in Dhaka.
India, on the other hand, matters to Bangladesh in more ways than one. Fair access to Indian market can galvanise Bangladeshi Private Sector, which, in turn, would create jobs and growth for its largely young population. An agricultural economy, Bangladesh depends on its rivers, all of which flow through India, making it dependent on Indian goodwill (and causes the most angst). Its common culture with West Bengal makes the travel restrictions particularly painful. Bangladesh needs a friendly India to leapfrog its economy and transform its politics.
However, while good relationship is common sense, the past proved to be a barrier. Indians commonly resent Bangladesh at two levels. One, there are Bengali Hindus, who are influential in West Bengal, who lost property in the partition - and therefore, resent the existence of the country. Second, more generally, Indians seem to remember the role Indian army played in Bangladesh's Liberation War, and therefore, expect a debt of gratitude, and feel somewhat aggrieved when Bangladesh behaves like a normal sovereign country. Bangladeshis, in their turn, feel insecure with India's posturing with water, and allow its suspicions of the big, indifferent, neighbour to become a divide drawn along the religious lines. Its old elite, many of whom sided with Pakistan during the war of liberation, harbours deep dislike of India, having fought it to make East Pakistan (successfully) and to keep it that way (unsuccessfully).
This past will be present in the meetings, conversations, deals and understandings Mr Modi engages in. It is like that ever present spirit in Indo-Bangladeshi engagements, and show up, as we have seen recently, even in Cricket grounds. And, the key to transformation, of the relationship and of the two countries, is to let the future matter more. It may sound like common sense, but it needs political courage. In the past, most engagements, therefore, faltered, and the politics of poverty have overtaken good intentions. Mr Modi, with his overwhelming mandate and continuing popularity, has one historic opportunity to change the conversation.
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