Just about a week after Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla's Dhaka tour, the statement of newly appointed Sri Lankan foreign secretary Jayanath Colombage would sound like music to the ears of the Indian policymakers. Colombage said Sri Lanka would adopt an ‘India first' approach, which tells us they have learnt from their past.
He said Sri Lanka "will not do anything harmful to India's strategic security interests," noting that leasing Hambantota port to China was a mistake.
The realisation of the new Sri Lanka government makes two things clear. First, India's importance to her neighbours is unquestionable. And second, the 'Act East' policy of India has made 'Neighbours First' programmes key to serve mutual interests.
Sensation in the media and China's presence
It is in this light that the assessment of Shringla's 'sudden' visit to Dhaka must be made, all the more so with the issue of China's presence looming large in India's 'Neighbours First' policy.
Bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh got special attention of the media in Bangladesh and in recent times the Indian media had quite a heyday over the issue. Some have been skeptical, wondering if the 'golden chapter' is at risk, with Chinese influence increasing in Bangladesh's politics and development. As a result, many are now reassessing the strength of the ties between the two countries.
Former diplomats who have worked in India and many experts and observers have rejected such speculations, terming them as 'meaningless' and 'impossible'. They maintain that despite some hiccups, which is normal in all relations, the longstanding relationship of mutual interests is highly unlikely to suffer a setback.
Former Indian high commissioner in Bangladesh Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty feels there is nothing to worry. "Bilateral ties have only seen historical advancement thanks to the relations between the leaders of the two countries," he said.
"The political stability of the last decade has taken trade relations to a new height. Bangladesh's foreign export to India has crossed $1 billion. India is also the top travel destination for Bangladeshis and the demand for Indian visas is always increasing," Pinak added.
Sreeradha Datta, senior fellow of Vivekananda Foundation and an expert on South Asian policies, said, "Relations between India and Bangladesh are always growing stronger. Both the countries some common values, which is imperative in maintaining a historical and cultural links. The mutual economic dependence is also undeniable. It is very normal that the ties will be further strengthened."
But does that mean there will be no challenges? Sreeradha Datta replied, "Of course there are. That's very natural. That's why we see issues like Teesta water sharing or border killings casting a shadow every now and then. But that does not put an end to the relationship."
"This is not only a relation between the two countries, it is also taking forward the region's collective development efforts," she added.
Since she knows the depth of the relationship, former Indian high commissioner Veena Sikri is also not interested to question the "sudden" visit of Shringla.
"This is a part of the continued dialogue between the two countries. His visit at a time when coronavirus has slapped travel restrictions and the meeting with prime minister Sheikh Hasina only shows how important Bangladesh is to India," she observed.
Pinak Ranjan also feels the same. He sees this as a part of continued efforts to strengthen the ties. "Probably they needed to sit together to discuss the trial of a COVID-19 vaccine. We need to see this visit in light of the post-COVID economic programmes."
However, there should be some clarity, Sreeradha adds. People do not get the chance to be suspicious if the right answers are delivered at the right time, she observed.
"The relation between Bangladesh and India are based on trust. They should deal with such unwanted questions with utmost transparency."
However, former high commissioner Deb Mukherjee said that neither Bangladesh nor India can duck the blame for this controversy. "The foreign secretary did not need to go there to talk about COVID-19 vaccine trials. The meeting with the prime minister was not needed either. They did not discuss the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or National Register of Citizens (NRC). They did not speak on China either. Then what did they talk about?"
This particular camp always sees India negatively. They blame India for dividing Pakistan. And this quarter is the backbone of opposition BNP. This quarter sees everything from a communal perspective
If they could explain things at the right time, the rumours would have been scotched.
Then how come the anti-Indian sentiment is so palpable? "This is surprising. Only a few days back, both the governments termed the relationship a 'golden chapter'. A survey carried out by a major Indian daily said Bangladeshis are the favourite neighbours to the majority of Indians. Why would they feel hatred now?" wondered Deb Mukherjee.
Smruti Pattanaik, a researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), had a similar question. "India helps Bangladesh the most. How come their anti-India sentiment is so strong? What an irony!"
Deb Mukherjee has an answer. "It is probably because they associate the ruling Awami League with India. The decade-long rule has probably given birth to an anti-government sentiment that they are channeling towards India."
"This particular camp always sees India negatively. They blame India for dividing Pakistan. And this quarter is the backbone of opposition BNP. This quarter sees everything from a communal perspective," he further said.
"They have been doing that for the last 50 years," Veena Sikri said. "To them, China is a great friend and Pakistan is an ally."
But India did hand them weapons in the name of CAA and NRC. Deb Mukherjee thinks these two issues have weakened the secular entities in the region, while strengthening the communal forces.
"CAA and NRC are giant thorns in the relations between the two countries," he observed.
Pinak Ranjan feels this quarter is fueling anti-India sentiment. "The China-Pakistan axis is behind the move, no doubt."
But how to contain them? Pinak Ranjan says Bangladesh and India should contain them together. This is a must to protect mutual interest.
"Both the nations should be alert. They should not let the enemies get the upper hand."