|Sushma Swaraj and (right) Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka on Thursday. (AP)
New Delhi, June 26: Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj today held out a string of promises to Dhaka, from easier visas to more Indian electricity, on a visit aimed at burying the ghosts of the previous NDA regime and her Prime Minister’s election threats against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Sushma also handed over a letter from Narendra Modi to his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina, inviting her to visit India soon and committing his government to “further accelerating our engagement and strengthening the framework of our relationship”.
Although Sushma assured Hasina that the NDA government was committed to two key pacts opposed by Mamata Banerjee that the UPA had promised Dhaka, senior government officials told The Telegraph that a breakthrough with the Bengal chief minister remained elusive.
But Bangladesh officials who followed Sushma’s multiple meetings today indicated that her first interaction with the country’s senior leaders had left Dhaka significantly more at ease about ties with India than on May 16, when the Modi-led BJP swept to power.
“We are convinced that India’s development cannot be complete and sustainable unless we succeed in building productive partnerships with our immediate neighbours,” Sushma told diplomats and analysts at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies after her meeting with Hasina. “We will, therefore, devote our energy to working much more closely with our neighbours in pursuit of our development goals.”
Sushma, who also met her counterpart Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali and Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid, underscored in each meeting that the BJP was keen to take ties with Dhaka even beyond the heights they had reached under the Manmohan Singh government. This is Sushma’s first solo visit abroad since taking over as foreign minister — she had travelled with Modi to Bhutan earlier this month.
“In each of her meetings she specifically emphasised that the new government of India stands ready to enhance the momentum and build on our cooperative relationship,” foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said in Dhaka. “In essence, her message to the leadership of Bangladesh has been that India stands ready to break fresh ground in our relationship.”
Sushma offered Dhaka a peek at gestures her government is ready to extend to demonstrate its desire to embrace Bangladesh, a country that only found mention in Modi’s election rallies in one context — as a source of illegal immigrants.
Sushma told Hasina and Ali India was willing to offer multiple-entry, five-year visas to Bangladeshi nationals under 13 and over 65, and was contemplating a visa-on-arrival scheme for senior citizens and children. “There is no proposal for ‘visa-free travel’ for Bangladeshi nationals to India,” Akbaruddin said, trying to cap a controversy — over a suggestion from Dhaka to allow select Bangladeshi citizens into India without visas — that preceded Sushma’s visit, and that has left the foreign ministry fumbling for explanations.
Sushma told Ali India was ready to increase the frequency of the Maitree Express that runs between Calcutta and Dhaka, and to raise the number of AC coaches on the train. She also suggested that experts from the two nations could pencil a blueprint to start a Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati bus service.
In addition to the 500MW India recently started supplying Bangladesh from the Behrampore-Bheramara grid connection, New Delhi is also ready to provide 100MW from the Palatana plant in Tripura, Sushma told her hosts.
New Delhi, she said, would assist Dhaka in setting up a proposed Bangladesh Bhavan on the Visva-Bharati campus that already hosts similar odes to Rabindranath Tagore’s ties with China and Japan. Bangladesh, Ali told Sushma, is ready to join India and 10 other countries in assisting with setting up the Nalanda University in Bihar.
But on the boundary agreement to swap tracts of land, and the Teesta water-sharing agreement, Sushma only assured Dhaka of her attempts to build domestic consensus, officials said.
Modi, in his letter, referred to the history India and Bangladesh share and, apart from a cursory mention, illegal immigration was not discussed by Sushma at any of her meetings, officials said.
“These messages are clearly not those of the pre-election Modi, nor of the Vajpayee-era-NDA,” a former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh told The Telegraph requesting anonymity because the envoy remains engaged in back-channel diplomacy initiatives with Dhaka. In the lead-up to the elections in India, Modi had been widely portrayed as more rigid and tough on foreign policy than former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who ruled from 1998 to 2004. But Dhaka retains bitter memories from the Vajpayee years, when the NDA government declared that 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants would be pushed back into their country.
The infamous-in-Bangladesh Operation Push Back was initiated. It failed, but triggered tensions between border security forces on both sides that led to frequent episodes of firing by soldiers, which in turn further aggravated the acrimony that lasted till Hasina came to power in 2009.Modi’s pre-election addresses in Assam and Bengal, warning illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to return home, reminded many in Dhaka of that Operation Push Back. “The minister’s statements today have certainly eased those fears,” a Bangladesh official said.
Sushma will on Friday morning meet former Bangladesh Prime Minister and Bangladesh Nationalist Party chief Begum Khaleda Zia and the current leader of Opposition Rowshan Ershad, wife of former President H.M. Ershad.