Seen in Bangladesh as a close friend of India, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is always under pressure back home to show tangible gains from the relationship.
When she first came to power in 1996, India’s United Front government delivered for her the Ganges water-sharing treaty. West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and then Communist Home Minister Indrajit Gupta also played a major role in sorting out the tribal insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
That gave Hasina much to show to her voters back home but did not help her win the next election in 2001. A border skirmish in the Northeast provoked an anti-India surge in Bangladesh and many believe that it sank Hasina’s boat.
Her long tenure in power since January 2009 has been marked by a golden decade of development. She has done much to address India’s security and connectivity concerns, cracking down on Northeast Indian rebels sheltered by the BNP-Jamaat regime and granting India use of her ports to access the Northeast.
But except the land boundary agreement marking the resolution of the problems of border enclaves, Hasina and successive governments in Delhi have come a cropper in taking forward the water sharing agreement on Teesta and other common rivers.
On the eve of her visit to Delhi, Hasina had said that she expects India to be generous on the water-sharing issue. But she was quick to flag Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intent to resolve the issue.
Hasina had also written to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee expressing her desire to meet her during her India visit in a bid to break the deadlock.
The tense Modi-Mamata relationship further complicates what Delhi can do to address the water-sharing issue.
India may deliver on many fronts like providing additional line of credit for key projects or even a support fund in case Bangladesh’s forex reserves drop sharply (as New Delhi provided to Sri Lanka) but the river water is an emotive issue in Bangladesh with its large agrarian population.
“A mature politician like Jyoti Basu understood what Mamata Banerjee is unwilling to concede. That Hasina needs to show her people real gains from her close relationship with India. The Mamata factor is now the biggest irritant in bilateral ties,” says Sukharanjan Dasgupta, a Kolkata-based columnist who authored books on Bangladesh.
The need to show real gains from India has never been more pressing for Hasina.
With adverse economic headwinds forcing her government to sharply hike fuel prices and enforce substantial power cuts — unpopular moves — Hasina needs to show her people a breakthrough on the river water issue and Indian support for resolving the Rohingya refugee issue which constitutes a huge economic burden for Bangladesh.
Along with the river waters issue, Hasina also called for Indian support to resolve the Rohingya issue, but India has much less influence on Myanmar’s military junta than China.
The Indian foreign office has already flagged the importance of Hasina’s visit and the high importance Delhi accords to its ties with Dhaka.
But with Hasina facing parliament polls in a year’s time, observers say it is now payback time for India. They say the “India factor” in Bangladesh politics needs to be clearly understood by policymakers in Delhi and deliverables provided to Hasina at perhaps the most critical juncture in her long current tenure.