There could not have been a better symbol than ‘Maitri Setu’, a two-kilometre long bridge built over the Feni river in Tripura to connect India and Bangladesh, to reflect the efforts to reset the bilateral relationship and influence the geopolitics of the region. The inauguration of the bridge, which is expected to herald a new chapter for trade and people to people movement between the two countries, comes ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, the first overseas trip since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Apart from the symbolic significance of the bridge, which will provide quick access to Chittagong Port, the development will set the tone for a candid bilateral engagement to iron out the irritants that had crept into the relationship in recent times. While in Dhaka, Modi will participate in the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence. The visit also comes in the midst of heat and dust generated by the West Bengal Assembly elections where issues like India’s ‘Act East’ policy and the sharing of Teesta river waters are at stake. West Bengal is crucial for any outreach with Bangladesh as it shares a 4,156-km long border, India’s longest with any country. The Teesta river water agreement has been hanging fire since 2015 because of strong opposition from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. There is also a vast scope to boost the bilateral trade, which stood at $10 billion in 2019-20. It can go up substantially if the two countries sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to expedite the passage of goods.
There is no denying the fact that a favourable regime in Dhaka has helped restore peace and check insurgency in the northeast. In the past, Pakistan’s ISI was having a free run operating from Bangladesh and collaborating with northeastern insurgent groups. Sheikh Hasina’s tough policies have helped rein in the extremist elements to a large extent. There is tremendous public goodwill for the Indian government as New Delhi went the extra mile to supply 9 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to the neighbouring country so far. The navies of the two countries held their first bilateral joint naval exercise in October 2019, indicating a deepening strategic relationship. A string of bilateral agreements in areas ranging from hydrocarbons to agriculture was signed last year. However, in recent times, avoidable friction had cropped up in the bilateral relationship over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). Dhaka has justifiably raised objections over a narrative that it is a perpetrator of religious persecution. It is here that New Delhi should tread cautiously and reset the bilateral ties to reflect the deep bond between the people of the two nations.
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