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Shringla's airdash: Did Bangladesh put its cards on the table?

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It was one of the mysterious visits to Dhaka by an Indian official. Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla air dashed and flew back after a few meetings. It was officially described as a discussion on vaccine trials. This may be true but nobody here has bought it. The reason given for the visit has only heightened speculation about India-Bangladesh relations. 

Given the calm and steady relationship Bangladesh has with India, there was no emergency demanding such a visit. The next door neighbor can make a telephone call anytime. There is no “border” issue to warrant an air dash. 

“Why then?"-is what Dhaka is asking. Even the social media, given to rumor mongering and speculation, is quite puzzled. What did Bangladesh do to deserve this special attention?

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Significant or not?

Going by media reports, including those from India, the visit was significant. Interestingly, the Bangladesh media didn't even mention it as it came at the last minute. Bangladesh has no border dispute, no military plans, no politics that can cause such Indian concern. No one is coming, no one is going. The Bangladesh social media may care about what India says or doesn't but the Bangladesh government of Sheikh Hasina doesn't really bother, leading its own life. 

Speculating on the causes 

Three speculations are floating about the reasons behind the visit:

  1. a) India wants Bangladesh not to accept a major loan from China on Teesta or other projects. b) India is worried about Bangladesh's proximity to China including on border issues. c) India is keen on setting up common platforms on regional and bi-lateral issues.

Public interest was of course about stopping of killings of trespassing Bangladeshis by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and of course the Rohingya issue. The official word is that it was about opening an air corridor with India and vaccine trials. But some say that the visit could have happened only because something important was up. And this idea isn't going away. 

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No matter how unofficial it is, the Indian Foreign Secretary arrived in an official plane. He was billed as a carrier of a message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi which of course made it very official. Yet the treatment was rather odd given the "significance" of the goods carried. 

Shringla was not accorded any official protocol at the airport. He was kept waiting to meet the Prime Minister the entire day and no joint statement was issued. It is of course possible that there are some very logical and even innocent reasons behind all this but that is a very odd scenario to accept.

Trilateralism

What drives Indo-Bangla relationship at this point of time is mutual interest. 1971 suited both, hence the outcome was based on a shared objective. What happened after that was the domination of India and the subservience of Bangladesh. That alignment changed with the rise of China which has now begun to be interested in Bangladesh as a place to keep its economic and perhaps strategic foot too. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has strengthened China even more.

Trilaterialism is at work whereby Sino-Indian relations also impact on Bangladesh’s relations with China and India. If there is hostility, both will try to court fence sitters like Bangladesh who let the situation go on because they gain from it. In that case, whoever offers a better and bigger deal will gain support. It is not a new cold war of dogma but of practical advantages. Both have to sell a better “alliance” product.

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There is no question that Bangladesh is not in a position to challenge anyone, not even Myanmar. Militarily it doesn't even pretend to. Interestingly, that is it’s the best defense. It's not a threating country. India can't attack it nor can it send millions of refugees. How does one put pressure on Bangladesh? China has no common border.

China card? 

It is also being stated that the BRI is the main thrust but China wants more concessions including airport landing and other facilities from Bangladesh. India needs to offer more to counter these. But China is loaded with cash, India isn't. This is making China more confident. The one sided relations that India had has hit a bad road bump. 

It is speculation, but by not exactly offering a friendly embrace, Bangladesh showed its cards. As long as India continues to offer a vision of friendship and not much else, it can't play the game. Bangladesh is not going to offer sanctuary to the North-East rebels. And so it expects something in return, and not the National Citizens Register. It may feel that India took that for granted. A little more mutuality will help both. 

And both must work at better press statements for explaining such visits. Citing vaccine trials and air corridors for an emergency dash insults the intelligence of the people here.