COLOMBO: Plagued by conflicts with neighboring China, Pakistan and Nepal, India is showing renewed interest in forging close ties with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka which, despite the existence of contentious issues, remain India’s only friends in South Asia.

In the absence of a reasonably good relationship with these two countries, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Neighborhood First” policy will have gone kaput.

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shingla’s two-day unofficial visit to Dhaka to hand over a message from Modi to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and to meet a cross section of opinion makers, gave an opportunity to discuss some contentious issues.

Likewise, Indian Foreign Minister Dr.S.Jaishankar’s telephonic conversation with his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena helped open a dialogue on some issues which have soured bilateral relations.

While key issues like the sharing of Teesta waters, killings of Bangladeshis by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and anti-Bangladesh and anti-Muslim utterances by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party remain, Shringla and Hasina agreed that the special relations between the two countries should be upheld as a matter of priority.

It remains to be seen if the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which wants to capture West Bengal in the 2021 Assembly elections, will show restraint in making comments about Muslims, Bangladesh and the so called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, New Delhi appears to have no alternative to working with the nationalistic government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is commonly seen as pro-China.

The Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) romped home with a two thirds majority when the parliamentary elections were held this month. As in the case of Bangladesh, many issues in Indo-Lanka relations remain to be settled.

This can only be done diplomatically, taking into consideration each other’s legitimate concerns. India can no longer apply the kind of pressures it did in the past because, since 2010, there is another powerful player in the region – China.

Indo-Bangla relations, which had been very cordial and fruitful since 2008, hit a bad patch with India declaring 1.9 million people in Assam as non-citizens and as ill-legal migrants from Bangladesh. The Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, described them as “termites” to be got rid of. Bangladesh denied that they were Bangladeshis.

Bilateral tension led to Bangladesh cancelling of some important high level visits to India. Recently, a Bangladeshi paper Bhorer Kakoj and an Indian daily Hindu carried a story saying that Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina had not given an appointment to the Indian High Commissioner Reva Ganguly for four months.

There were also reports in the Pakistani media that the Pakistani High Commissioner had met the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister and that this signaled a thawing of ties with Pakistan to India’s detriment. This caused ripples in New Delhi.

But after a period of suspense-filled silence, Bangladesh let it be known that due to COVID-19, Prime Minister Hasina had not met any foreign envoy, and not just the Indian envoy. The Bangladesh government described its relations with India as “rock solid” and the media reports to the contrary as “speculative”.

To end speculation the Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited with a message from Modi to Sheikh Hasina. It is understood that, among other issues, the two discussed the difficulties encountered in some India-financed projects due to problems of mobilization of resources and sourcing of material for the projects.

Both countries know that it is not easy to break India-Bangla ties. This is partly because they share an intense antipathy to Pakistan. Indians should note that Bangladesh has made it clear Pakistan that there can be no normalization with it until Islamabad tenders an unqualified apology for its atrocities prior to independence in 1971.

Furthermore, Bangladesh is India’s biggest trade partner in South Asia. India’s exports to Bangladesh for financial year 2018-19 (April-March) stood at US$ 9.21 billion and imports from Bangladesh for the same period stood at US$ 1.22 billion. India has ensured duty-free access of Bangladeshi goods to the Indian market, especially ready-made garments.

Energy cooperation between the two sides has also shown a lot of positivity with the Indian state of Tripura supplying 160 MW of power to Bangladesh in addition to the 500 MW the country is receiving from West Bengal since 2013. India has a transit agreement with Bangladesh which allows its goods to travel across Bangladesh from West Bengal to Tripura cutting the travel time significantly.

On August 18, the Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr. S Jaishankar, spoke to his Lankan counterpart, Dinesh Gunawardena, to congratulate him on his reappointment as Minister of Foreign Relations and say that he looked forward to working closely to take India- Sri Lanka partnership to greater heights.

The Indian side said that the strong mandate received by the Sri Lankan Government in the parliamentary elections would play a key role in strengthening the commitment on the part of both countries to take the bilateral relationship forward.

India has many economic issues pending, such as it’s participation in running the Colombo port’s East Container Terminal (ECT), and the Trincomalee oil tanks, as well as more than a dozen projects for which MoUs were inked in 2017. But of late, India has put emphasis on the Buddhist links between the two countries.

The present Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay is spearheading this. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited Sri Lanka to operate the first international flight from the new international airport at Kushinagar, a town in Uttar Pradesh associated with the Buddha.

India’s using Buddhism to firm up ties with Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka is significant because both China and Pakistan have started harking back to their Buddhist past to buttress ties which have so far been based on other considerations such as investments and aid in the case of China and military sales in the case of Pakistan.

China, especially, is investing quite manifestly in soft power to give its economic clout a human face. Pakistan is trying to create the impression that it is not a country of Islamic extremism but a tolerant one which is proud of its Buddhist past.

However, there are bread and butter issues like Colombo port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) and the Trincomalee Oil tanks which have to be taken up. A Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) had been signed on the ECT according to which the Terminal Operations Company to be formed would be jointly owned by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (51% shares); Japan (34%) and India (15%). While India has been seeking a presence saying that 70% of Colombo port’s business is transshipment to and from India, a section of the Lankan government and the port workers’ union do not want the operation of the port to be given to any foreign entity.

The Rajapaksa government will have to take a call on this quickly as a miffed India could choose another hub for the trans-shipment of Indian cargo, depriving Colombo port of 70% of its business.

The case of the Trincomalee oil tanks is also pending apart from about 15 other projects. In 2003, India was given the 99 oil tanks in Trincomalee for refurbishing and use. But only 15 tanks are being used. The Sri Lankan government had wanted 16 of the remaining 84 tanks to be handed over to it. Finally it was decided that the 84 tanks will be jointly developed. But the matter is at a standstill. On the other joint projects the Rajapaksa government said that it would go ahead with some and opt out of others. But there is a standstill here too, partly due to COVID-19.

Cover Photo: Harsh Vardhan Shringla with Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka