A new era?

On 13 January, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had just returned home from New Delhi to face a barrage of accusations that she had "sold out" to India over a raft of concessions on bilateral issues. The main opposition was denouncing the joint communiqué; the extreme right was marching on Dhaka's streets. And then into the fray jumped Virender Sehwag, captain of the touring Indian cricket team, raising nationalist hackles by describing his opponents as an "ordinary" side that lacked the quality to take 20 Indian Test wickets – that, too, in a pre-match press conference. While most cricket-loving Bangladeshis knew the remarks to be brutally accurate, they saw the delivery as loaded with a haughty derision that seems to be a regular feature of New Delhi's dealings with its smaller neighbours.

Then again, there is perhaps no good season for mutual concessions in Indo-Bangla relations, even without the damage that cricketers' insults can do. Prime Minister Hasina undertook a fierce political gamble when she headed to Delhi in the middle of last month. Besides mutually discussing security, movement of peoples and trade were the highlights of the visit. What stands out is that Bangladesh has granted India access to the key Mongla and Chittagong ports, on the country's coast. While Bangladesh has expressed its wish to grant similar access to Nepal and Bhutan, the joint communiqué that emerged from the summit gives no indication that India has agreed to grant those countries the transit they need to enjoy this concession. The issue of transit alone has cast a dark shadow over bilateral relations for much of the past decade, despite the fact that both countries stand to gain significantly from the resulting increase in trade and infrastructure development. While New Delhi has repeatedly indicated that progress on transit must precede progress on other outstanding bilateral issues, Bangladesh had held out thus far, knowing this was its strongest bargaining chip to extract concessions on issues such as water-sharing and trade.

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Himal Southasian