Not much noticed by outsiders, long-troubled ties between two neighbours sharing a long border have taken a substantial lurch for the better. Ever since 2008, when the Awami League, helped by Indian cash and advice, triumphed in general elections in Bangladesh, relations with India have blossomed. To Indian delight, Bangladesh has cracked down on extremists with ties to Pakistan or India's home-grown terrorist group, the Indian Mujahideen, as well as on vociferous Islamist (and anti-Indian) politicians in the country. India feels that bit safer.
Now the dynasts who rule each country are cementing political ties. On July 25 Sonia Gandhi swept into Dhaka, the capital, for the first time. Sharing a sofa with Shaikh Hasina, the prime minister (and old family friend), the head of India's ruling Congress Party heaped praise on her host, notably for helping the poor. A beaming Shaikh Hasina reciprocated with a golden gong, a posthumous award for Sonia's mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. In 1971 she sent India's army to help Bangladeshis, led by Shaikh Hasina's father, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, throw off brutal Pakistani rule.
India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, will visit early in September to sign deals on sensitive matters like sharing rivers, sending electricity over the border, settling disputed patches of territory on the 4,095-kilometre frontier and stopping India's border guards from murdering migrants and cow-smugglers. Singh may also deal with the topic of trade which, smuggling aside, heavily favours India, to Bangladeshi ire.
Most important, however, is a deal on setting up a handful of transit routes across Bangladesh, to reach India's remote, isolated north-eastern states. These are the ‘seven sisters' wedged up against the border with China.
On the face of it, the $10 billion (Dh36.7 billion) project will develop poor areas cut off from India's booming economy. The Asian Development Bank and others see Bangladeshi gains too, from better roads, ports, railways and much-needed trade. In Dhaka, the central bank governor says broader integration with India could lift economic growth by a couple of percentage points, from nearly 7 per cent already.
New transit project
India has handed over half of a $1 billion soft loan for the project, and the money is being spent on new river-dredgers and rolling stock. Bangladesh's rulers are mustard-keen.
Yet the new transit project may be about more than just development. Some in Dhaka, including military types, suspect it is intended to create an Indian security corridor. It could open a way for army supplies to cross low-lying Bangladesh rather than going via dreadful mountain roads vulnerable to guerrilla attack. As a result, India could more easily put down insurgents in Nagaland and Manipur. The military types fear it might provoke reprisals by such groups in Bangladesh.
More striking, India's army might try supplying its expanding divisions parked high on the border with China, in Arunachal Pradesh. China disputes India's right to Arunachal territory, calling it South Tibet. Some Bangladeshis fret that if India tries to overcome its own logistical problems by, in effect, using Bangladesh as a huge military marshalling yard, reprisals from China would follow.
For India, however, the risk is that it is betting too heavily on Shaikh Hasina, who is becoming increasingly autocratic. Opposition boycotts of parliament and general strikes are run-of-the-mill. Corruption flourishes at levels astonishing even by South Asian standards. A June decision to rewrite the constitution looks to be a blunt power grab, letting the government run the next general election by scrapping a ‘caretaker' arrangement.
It hardly suggests that India's ally has a wholly secure grasp on power. A tendency to vote incumbents out may yet unseat Shaikh Hasina in 2013, or street violence might achieve the same. She would then be replaced by her nemesis, Khalida Zia, of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Zia's family dynasty, also corrupt, is as against India as Shaikh Hasina's is for it. But India's habit of shunning meetings with Zia and her followers may come to look short-sighted. When he visits Bangladesh in September, Singh would do well to make wider contact if India's newly improving relations are not one day to take another big dive for the worse.