India’s decision to allow its border roads in Mizoram and Tripura to be used by Bangladeshi forces as they construct border outposts in the inhospitable terrain of the Chittagong Hill Tracts shows just how far the two countries have come to bridging their trust deficit. The decision, conveyed last week in Dhaka during the meeting of Home Ministry and security officials working on closer border management cooperation, came as Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar flew into Bangladesh to begin preparations for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in early April. If the visit goes as planned, it will be her first bilateral trip to India since 2010, when the MoU for the Land Boundary Agreement was originally announced. The terms of that agreement have now been fully implemented, and Ms. Hasina’s visit will build on the boost that relations received from the historic agreement that was signed in 2015 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka. Ms. Hasina has long made it clear that she would only return the visit when there are ‘substantive outcomes’ on the table, and the fact that officials are now speaking of a visit in two months’ time indicates that several important announcements can be expected. There is speculation about a defence partnership agreement, movement on the Teesta water-sharing agreement, the Ganga water barrage project, and other energy and connectivity projects. Any of these would go a long way in cementing ties that are increasingly described as a “win-win” for both neighbours.
However, both New Delhi and Dhaka would be aware of the possible bumps in the road ahead. Some of these involve the Centre and the affected Indian States. For instance, water-sharing is a highly emotive subject, and movement on Teesta water-sharing has been held up largely because of West Bengal’s reservations. To address them, the Central government needs to reach out to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Similarly Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has raked up the Farakka Barrage project. For Ms. Hasina, the political worries are greater. She faces an election in 2018, and with the opposition accusing her of being soft on India, she cannot be seen to be returning home empty-handed on the water question. Also, while the border issue has been resolved, border firing has not ceased, an issue Ms. Hasina’s rivals use to target her. Meanwhile, she faces the task of addressing India’s mistrust over Chinese investment in Bangladesh, with $38 billion pledged in infrastructure cooperation and joint ventures during President Xi Jinping’s visit last year. Ms. Hasina has sought to address this by arguing that India will also benefit from Bangladesh’s enhanced prosperity if all these projects go through. Yet, Dhaka may need to be more aware of India’s anxiety as Bangladesh and other neighbours become more heavily invested in China’s One Belt One Road project, that India has opted to stay out of for now.