07/12/2014 2:11 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Modi's Bangladesh Deal: Small Footprint, Big Impact

Future historians might consider Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision last week to settle a festering border dispute with Bangladesh as a statesman-like act of great significance, disproportionate to mere 37 square miles of land that it involves.

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL - NOVEMBER 26: Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, gives a speech during the inaugural session of the 18th SAARC Summit on November 26, 2014 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Nepal is hosting the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Kathmandu, which will be attended by leaders of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal. Nepal is hosting the SAARC Summit for the third time, which was first held in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1985. Some of the key issues to be discussed during the Summit will include three key framework agreements between SAARC countries to enhance rail and road connectivity and to set up a regional power grid. (Photo by Narendra Shrestha - Pool/Getty Images)

Future historians might consider Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision last week to settle a festering border dispute with Bangladesh as a statesman-like act of great significance, disproportionate to mere 37 square miles of land that it involves. It will smoothen India's relations with Bangladesh, enable closer cooperation on fighting terrorism and could also help reduce China's seductive appeal to Bangladesh.

Modi has already demonstrated his belief that, like charity, good foreign policy begins at home. In retrospect, his invitation to neighboring South Asian leaders to his inauguration may have been the first master stroke of which the land deal with Dhaka might well be the second.

The land border issue between India and Bangladesh dates back to the 1947 partition that created Pakistan (and later Bangladesh), leaving enclaves on both sides of the border. It meant 14,000 stateless Bangladeshis live deep inside Indian territory and 38,000 stateless Indians live in enclaves within Bangladesh. As the Islamist threat in Bangladesh grew and China and Pakistan gained influence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh focused on resolving the old dispute. He also sought to address Bangladeshi grievance over sharing the Teesta river water that runs through both countries. The government argued that the border and water accord would help shore up the friendly Sheikh Hasina government battling against pro-Islamist parties.

Unfortunately, the agreement signed during Singh's much-anticipated September 2011 trip to Dhaka could not be implemented because of resistance from his own coalition partner Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and then the leading opposition party -- the BJP. The agreement, which would have normalized a legal anomaly, was seen as against national interest and even anti-constitutional. Current BJP finance minister Arun Jaitly then in the opposition, charged that the agreement "violate(s) the basic structure of the Constitution."

Political emotion and lack of parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution meant the deal was dead in the water. Now assured of a two-thirds vote in the Parliament, (even opposition party Trinamool has reversed its earlier objection) Modi has braved the political disaffection within the BJP as well as other opponents in West Bengal and Assam, states that border Bangladesh. Modi has tried to sell the deal by arguing that it will help curb illegal immigration mostly by Muslims from Bangladesh, which has been a hot political issue, especially in Assam and among a section of people in West Bengal.

India's poor relations with most of its immediate neighbors have allowed China to build strong economic and military ties with countries that should share close economic, cultural, ethnic and linguistic links with New Delhi. Since his election, Modi has focused on the neighbors, visiting Bhutan and Nepal and offering increased aid and cooperation. Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Bangladesh early on to lay the groundwork for a settlement. Now, with the resolution of the land border issue with Bangladesh, and hopefully by reaching the long-blocked agreement to share the Teesta waters, India will be better placed to cultivate good relations with Bangladesh.

Perhaps an unusual and politically significant aspect of the deal is that an Indian politician has dared to challenge his own party's orthodoxy for the sake of national interest. Modi is also a rare politician to admit that in the short-term the deal may be seen as a loss, but that it will enhance national security in the long-term. The Hindu nationalist PM, who is fond of citing ancient classics, seems to have drawn a significant lesson from the epic Mahabharata. That tale describes a great war that ensued after the Kauravas unjustly rejected a request to grant their exiled Pandava cousins a mere five villages from the Kaurava kingdom, claiming that "not a needlepoint of territory shall we cede without war." Unlike the protagonists in that tale, Modi believes that while unresolved border disputes might not lead to a war, a fair resolution certainly enhances the prospect for peace.


Nayan Chanda is the founding editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online published since 2002 and is a Contributing Editor of The WorldPost.

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