Over the course of successive summits between the leaders of India and Bangladesh since the Awami League's return to power in 2009 under Sheikh Hasina, the bilateral relationship between the two countries has grown into arguably the most important one among all South Asian nations. With Bangladesh having overtaken Pakistan to become firmly established as the second biggest economy in the region, and neither Delhi or Dhaka - at least under their current dispensations - showing much inclination to bring in Islamabad from the cold, it is in fact difficult to see ties between any other combination of the 8 countries (including Afghanistan) in the region having anything like the same sense of purpose or bearing upon the region's future.
It is in this context that India's offer of free transit to Bangladesh via its territory for exporting products to third countries through specified land customs stations, airports and seaports, has to be assessed. Not only does it come off as arguably the biggest takeaway for the Bangladesh side from this week's summitry - by giving serious legs to the 4-country BBIN grouping (Bangladesh would mostly use the facility to export its goods to Bhutan and Nepal), it may have even sounded the death knell for the larger, more traditional Saarc.
Whether one agrees or not with the vision they espouse, what cannot be denied is that in the absence of any competing vision that is also credible, the India-Bangladesh relationship is reshaping the geopolitics of South Asia today in decisive ways.
During the post-2009 period, whenever Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has met with her Indian counterpart - Dr Manmohan Singh till 2014, and since then Narendra Modi - political warmth has been almost guaranteed. India's far more mature body politic recognised long ago that issues of national interest cannot be subjected to the vagaries of party politics. There are some issues on which consensus must emerge across party lines.
Despite vast differences between the BJP government and the opposition parties in both the centre and a number of important states in India's federal system of governance, there is now a distinct consensus on the kind of Bangladesh they prefer to deal with. Over and above everything else, and for reasons that are actually quite valid, it is one led by Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League. Indian government officials, diplomats and even politicians must feign neutrality, but there is no hiding from this fact. As one of India's leading newspapers, the Indian Express, put it in one of their editorials this week: "It is no secret that India would be more than pleased if Hasina were to win a fourth consecutive term."
Ultimately, the current dispensation in Bangladesh enjoys support across the political spectrum in India, and among its people. Yet, that is precisely why it is even more disappointing that India has failed for more than a decade now to deliver on the longest outstanding issue for Dhaka vis-a-vis Delhi: a treaty on sharing the waters of the Teesta river. To her credit, the prime minister did not shy away from raising it whenever she could, including in the presence of Modi. Speaking at a reception before that meeting, she explained to her audience how the lack of adequate water in Bangladesh's part of the Teesta was preventing them from supplying hilsha connoisseurs in India with the highly coveted King of Fish. It may not have worked, but even without it, she may just be coming back with enough this time, to put the government in pole position for next year's election.
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