Apart from serving as good optics, the just-concluded visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh reminded the two countries of the vast untapped potential for economic cooperation and people-to-people bonding. While the bilateral ties rest on a strong foundation, given India’s role in the liberation struggle of the then East Pakistan, the two countries have not done much in the last five decades to fully exploit the possibilities and connect people to their shared heritage. Time is ripe for taking the relationship to a new level because an economic and emotional reunification is possible with a win-win for all. For instance, India should consider having a soft border with Bangladesh, on the lines of Europe that allows free trade and commerce. The road connectivity between the northeastern States through Bangladesh can be mutually beneficial because the revenue from the transit fees will help develop the road infrastructure within Bangladesh. Inland water transport too has potential, given the number of rivers in the region and it can connect the traditional areas. The entire Bay of Bengal coast must be looked at as one continuous line for the common advantage of the people living in the vicinity. The geostrategic advantages from such initiatives could be massive. Connectivity has emerged as a major pillar of bilateral ties, underlining the importance of multi-modal transportation infrastructure to foster greater trade, investment and movement of people. Bangladesh has come on board the trilateral highway project between India, Myanmar and Thailand.
The conferment of the Gandhi Peace Prize on Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman posthumously reflected an acknowledgement of the goodwill that exists between the people of the countries. The gesture to provide the first lot of free Covid-19 vaccines to Bangladesh was a clear signal of India’s priority in the neighbourhood. Bangladesh is India’s biggest trading partner and destination for India’s exports in South Asia. India is also the second largest source of imports, after China, for Bangladesh. The trade relations need to be deepened further. In Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a strong advocate of secularism, India has a reliable ally. In power since 2008, she has been helpful in aiding India in the security domain, by eliminating safe refuge on Bangladesh territory to northeastern Indian insurgent groups and handing over insurgent leaders to Indian authorities. With other important issues like the territorial and maritime boundary sorted out, the two countries have been able to focus on important sectors of bilateral cooperation like connectivity, trade, investment and development. However, some challenges still remain — river water-sharing, migration and religious radicalism. The Rohingya refugee crisis and the China factor are long-term issues that warrant sensitive handling and mutual accommodation.
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