It is not that Narendra Modi's India offers the largest liberal alternative to China's gargantuan communist-capitalist hybrid that brought the World Economic Forum (WEF) from Davos to New Delhi last week. Nor was it his brewing U.S. based partnership, with a maiden trade agreement between the two countries also unfolding last week. Although the WEF business ethic is beginning to embrace India's, the New Delhi rendezvous between the global economic platform and the region stemmed from South Asia registering the highest regional growth-rate the world over, a fact unlikely to remain a one-shot achievement. India was not even the leader, but this forum's title, "Innovating for India: Strengthening South Asia, Impacting the World," alongside another on India's Fourth Industrial Revolution, rightly put India in the sun.
Supported by the continued highest growth-rate in South Asia and among the world's leading growth-rate figures (standing on the cusp of breaking 8 per cent next year), Sheikh Hasina pointedly proposed her country to bridge South and Southeast Asian countries. Other local and regional news confirm her proposal and rationale were not hyperbole: multiple deals were signed with India reflected mutual need and dependence but skillfully skirted controversial issues.
On the one hand, Bangladesh is the only country in the world walled off from its neighbours, even though India is also the country's second largest trading partner. Yet, barbed-wires impede the very regional integrative endeavours being sought. When one considers how $10 billion of the world-leading $80 billion remittance income India receives annually comes right from Bangladesh, even the asymmetrical trade vastly benefiting India pales in comparison to this staggering figure, itself almost the size of Bangla-India net trade values. The lesser one speaks of smuggling also benefiting India, the better.
Yet, when Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar spoke of the "entire South Asia neighborhood, minus one," that 'one' was not Bangladesh, but Pakistan, the very country with whom India's relations has stymied the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) regional flagship: his 'minus one' approach has produced inefficient commercial outcomes right across South Asia, with India's picky adoption of neo-liberalism holding even the United States back from a full-fledged trade treaty commitment.
Modi's problem with Bangladesh, nonetheless, is less at the central level than provincial, just like it was during Manmohan Singh's tenure: the centre needs Bangladesh on board to ramp its broader South Asian desires, but provincial leaders often impede national-level progress. West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee launched a crusade to divert Ganges waters through Kolkata, even at the expense of several Bangladesh districts turning arid. Even Assam's BJP (Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party) coalition government (with Asom Gana Parishad) ferociously seeks a National Register of Citizens directly ostracising non-Assamese residents. Many are seasonal farm migrants from Bangladesh; but others also include non-Assamese Indians, such as from West Bengal, or India's south. Against BJP's Hindutva being imposed upon Muslim-majority Kashmir, Modi's government stirs "illegal migrant" popular cries to sustain support, often exposing xenophobic zeal while also targeting Indian minorities.
India's barbed-wire resort is becoming Bangladesh's too, adopted to cordon off Rohingya refugee camps amid increasing violence. Barbed-wire look-alikes also flourish in India, for example, the refusal for almost a decade to conclude a Teesta river agreement, speeding carbon-releasing coal sales to Bangladesh just when its own solar energy sources have overtaken coal counterparts for the first time inside the country, and hamstringing Bangladeshi exports still (like the more efficient RMG sales). Some argue the only Teesta flows happen to be one "pledge after pledge," others see Bangladesh as India's "business district," and coal-importing districts as India's "waste-basket."
Nonetheless, mutual trade has expanded, and the staggering imbalance Bangladesh faces has narrowed somewhat. Dhaka and Kolkata have now been connected by train services, Kolkata is now connected through steamers with Tripura through Brahmanbaria, while Indian investors show great interest in Bangladesh to build projects and produce off-shore.
These feed Hasina's Southeast Asian outreaches. Free-trade negotiations have been underway with some of the countries, and even amid Myanmar's unacceptable terms to welcome Rohingya refugees back, Bangladesh has not dived off the deep-end in frustration. It has invited Chinese mediation, and cordially exchanged views with other Southeast Asian countries also hosting Rohingya refugees and victims. There is substance behind her 'bridgehead' proposal.
This returns us to India's 1991 contemplation of a 'Look East' policy approach, which became 'Act East' from 2014. Many projects originally crisscrossing Bangladesh have since been recalibrated by India, for instance, a Silguri transit for its Kolkata-Hanoi highway rather than consolidating passage, over the Padma bridge, through Dhaka, and navigating the Bay of Bengal to connect India's heartland with Southeast Asia through Sittwe Port in Myanmar. Yet, the missing link may ultimately become the biggest obstacle: the half-hearted effort to convert individual efforts into collective pursuits. This cannot but be the springboard of a Bangladesh South-Southeast Asian bridgehead. India emphatically embracing that remains the challenge.
If the SAFTA initiative is not going anywhere, the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation) outfit is better geared for success. It too is only moving in third-gear with so many opportunity windows staring member-states. Hosting its headquarters, Bangladesh could help catalyse its 'renaissance', just as the WEF gatherings nudged India farther in the neo-liberal direction last week, based on an area of potential Indian comparative advantage: innovation. Two of our key concerns require this: inducing Myanmar to take back its expulsed residents; and bridge that South-Southeast Asian economic divide. Almost all other countries need the latter to clinch the economic breakthrough they stand upon: Bangladesh to explore economic diversification if it is to climb up the developmental pole; India to fire up its sinking growth-rates which, though still high, face growing domestic economic bottlenecks, ranging from dissatisfied farmers and an automobile production slow-down, to lackluster currency values. Even on the other side, Southeast Asian countries need an economic spark-plug change, especially as the China-U.S. tariff contest opens opportunities, and China's own off-shore searches preferring Southeast Asian destinations far more. A moribund collective approach must be revitalised to make the most efficient outcomes, and amid economic stress.
Another Bangladesh approach to reaching across South Asia is tapping other bilateral deals. Bhutan and Nepal have more than electricity and tourists to supply, while highways would also invoke India's participation more collectively, as with the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal initiative. We must further explore Sri Lanka and Pakistan, in that order. That orders matters because we already have unilateral economic conversations with Sri Lanka, which must now be extended. Pakistan's new government provides another opportunity to explore further bilateral cooperation. If India is finding Pakistan a continued bone of contention, we could help thaw the atmosphere through such opening gestures as cricket games. Though talks to have such matches are underway, indicating our 'bridgehead' intentions, there is plenty more to uncover.
Only with high sustainable growth-rates can our cherished long-term goal of becoming a developed country by 2041 materialise. But the spadework today must go beyond rhetoric and sniping into actual, material, and deep diplomatic exchanges, gulping the occasional hiccup, to complete the required domestic industrial transformations, and riding a teeny-weeny bit more with the wind than scripts.
Dr. Imtiaz A Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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