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Security, stability & trade — PM Hasina’s India visit agenda before polls in Bangladesh

Bangladesh Prime Minister Expected To Travel To India In September. Garnering India’s Support As She Gears Up For Next Year's Elections Likely To Be Another Focal Point Of Her Visit.

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina | ANI 

New Delhi: When Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visits India next month, the prime concern weighing on the minds of the leadership of both countries will be how to maintain stability in South Asia amid volatile conditions and political turmoil in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

During her three-day visit to India that’s likely to take place from 5 to 7 September, Hasina will also focus on garnering India’s support even as she gears up for the elections she will face next year, diplomatic sources told ThePrint.

The 2023 general elections in Bangladesh are expected to be a tough one for PM Hasina and come at a time when the country fights to sustain its image as a democracy.

According to sources, during this visit — probably the last before Hasina immerses herself in election campaigning — support from India will be crucial considering it is the largest democracy in the world and others in the neighbourhood continue to face massive challenges.

This visit comes at a time when not all’s well in Bangladesh. Although the Padma Multipurpose Bridge, which was inaugurated in June, was seen as a project that could help shore up support for Hasina’s ruling Awami League in next year’s elections, it also comes at a time when Dhaka has knocked on the World Bank’s doors for a loan of $2 billion to stabilise its forex reserves.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen has reportedly said, he has requested the Indian government to do whatever it can to keep PM Hasina in power. “I went to India and said that Sheikh Hasina has to be kept in power.”

Besides, Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh remains a worry, especially with incidents of violence against minority Hindus being reported in the country. Sources said this issue is also going to be a major factor for Hasina in the elections.

For India, this has become a major source of concern because this also translates into China increasing its influence in India’s neighbourhood, sources said. 

Defence, security, and the China factor

With the Chinese ‘spy’ ship Yuan Wang 5 docking in Sri Lanka’s strategic Hambantota Port, New Delhi has become extremely cautious in dealing with its neighbours. With Bangladesh, which is considered to be a close friend of India, New Delhi wants to make sure that it will not lean on Beijing, said another source.  

Ties between Dhaka and Beijing are expected to see some major momentum in the coming months as the Rohingya refugee issue continues to spiral out of control for Bangladesh. The Hasina government wants China to push Myanmar to take back the refugees.

Besides, as Bangladesh plans to strengthen itself militarily, India wants to sell more and more arms and equipment to that country. According to sources, the submarines that Bangladesh bought from China in 2016 have not turned out to be useful. Hence, it is scouting for defence items from countries like France and India.

The issue was discussed extensively during Indian Army Chief Gen. Manoj Pande’s visit to Dhaka in July — his first one abroad since assuming charge.

During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Bangladesh earlier this month, Beijing referred to Bangladesh as its “long-term strategic partner” and Dhaka reiterated that it follows the ‘One China’ policy even as tensions between China and Taiwan increased.

Trade ties to remain crucial

During her visit to India, Hasina may also push for both sides to launch talks for having an India-Bangladesh Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) — a wide-ranging trade pact in goods and services.

Sources said both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hasina are likely to officially signal the launching of CEPA negotiations this year.  

Both leaders are also expected to jointly inaugurate a 1,320 MW power plant being set up by the Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company Limited — a joint venture between India’s state-owned energy conglomerate NTPC and the Bangladesh Power Development Board.

Rajiv Bhatia, a veteran diplomat and an expert on neighbourhood, said: “This visit will be especially important this time because there is a degree of turbulence in South Asia and so both sides, being friendly countries, will take an overall stock of what’s happening in South Asia and will continue to work together as a larger factor of stability.”

Bhatia, a Distinguished Fellow at foreign policy thinktank Gateway House, also said that Bangladesh would also want India to include it in the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as a member as it feels it is “still not fully part of the spectrum”.

During his visit, the Chinese foreign minister had also raised duty-free access of Bangladesh’s goods and services to Chinese markets from 97 to 98 per cent.