The flurry of December engagements announced this week between the governments of India and Bangladesh, including what we understand would be a ‘virtual summit’ between the two prime ministers, would seem to be part of the efforts to infuse some new impetus into ties between two close neighbours. Ties that have faced some strain during the course of the pandemic, no doubt. The new Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, a seasoned diplomat, has seemed like a man on a mission from the day he arrived. His predecessor, who probably got a raw deal from the press back in India, was always gracious during her stay here. But Vikram Doraiswamy has already shown good, forward-looking diplomacy need not wait for a pandemic to end.
The reports of the two governments not seeing eye-to-eye anymore, owing to a string of issues on which there could be scope for difference in opinion only, have always been exaggerated of course. Even when the Indian foreign secretary had a rather subdued stay in the Bangladeshi capital back in July. But it is true that the checklist under which the recalibration in relations between the two countries was initiated back in 2009 had mostly been exhausted, while the ones that remain have long been relegated to dead horses. There is something quaint, almost reminiscent of a Bangladesh that was, in carrying on about the Teesta water-sharing agreement anymore. The only water-sharing talks that might befit the two nations now, over a decade later, would be within the framework of the Joint Rivers Commission, which must be made functional again for the equitable and sustainable management of all 54 common rivers shared by India and Bangladesh – for the good of our shared common future.
Which is why the seeming emphasis on sorting out the issues in this area, with the two sides said to be in talks actively to hold a Water Resources Secretary-level meeting in December before Minister-level talks on water issues, is a particularly bright spot. The two countries have even expressed optimism over resuming the activities of the JRC as well this year, around the same time. That may or may not happen, but here is a good rule of thumb: an Indian side that is prioritising, and seen to be prioritising the issue of water sharing, in recognition of its rights and responsibilities under international law as the upper riparian state, is one worth working with. Indeed, the ‘magic’ may be gone – but old-fashioned diplomacy can still go a long way.