Significance of President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee’s first foreign visit to Dhaka

Significance of President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee’s first foreign visit to Dhaka

President Pranab Mukherjee is scheduled to arrive in Dhaka on 4th March for a three-day visit to Bangladesh at the invitation of the President and Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Mukherjee was sworn in as President on 25th July last year. He is the first Bengali to become the President of India since its independence in 1947.

The Indian president is not elected directly by the people but voted into office by lawmakers from both houses of the national Parliament and state assemblies. Votes by members of Parliament weigh significantly more: One of their votes is worth 708 votes cast by state-level legislators.

Mukherjee won a comprehensive victory with 713,937 votes out of a total of 1,029,924, beating former Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma, nominee of opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party, secured 315,987 votes.

Why the visit?

Majority of people in neighbouring countries looks at India, the larger and resourceful neighbour with admiration and apprehension. Admiration is felt because the neighbour, having common bonds of history and geography, has been emerging as a global political and economic power. Apprehension emanates from stresses when neighbours are not sure of their position in the new geopolitical environment

Presidential visit is symbolic in the case of India where the President usually performs a ceremonial role. No Presidential visit can take place without the approval of the Indian government and it usually prepares a list of countries to which the ceremonial visit of the Indian President will take place, taking into account India’s national interests.

India is mindful that the geo-political scene around South Asia and South East Asia is changing. India realizes that it needs Bangladesh because of its geographic location. It needs transit/transshipment through Bangladesh to its northeastern states from West Bengal.

India as a regional power needs to cultivate good relationships with its neighbouring countries. If the neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal do no cooperate, India’s image gets tarnished abroad and furthermore these countries may make India difficult to achieve its regional and global ambition

Bangladesh shares borders with India and reformist Myanmar and is a near neighbour to China, Nepal and Bhutan. If India has strained relations with Bangladesh, some analysts believe Bangladesh may consider seriously looking eastwards and eventually may form a cooperative institutional relationship with Myanmar, Thailand, and China, given the geopolitical shift of power towards Asia-Pacific at the 21st century.

Relations between India and Bangladesh have been on the upswing ever since Sheikh Hasina took power in 2009. Prime Minister Hasina visited New Delhi in January 2010 and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Dhaka in September 2011

It is noted that whatever India wanted from Bangladesh, Dhaka has moved quickly to address Delhi’s concerns on cross-border terrorism and transit/transshipment to the North-East, given the proper infrastructure in place for it. Transit on experimental basis was provided to India by Bangladesh in 2011. The huge 726 MW Palatana gas-based thermal power plant was transported from West Bengal through Bangladesh to Tripura in that year.

That Mukherjee’s first foreign visit to Bangladesh demonstrates that Indian government attaches great importance to the existing cooperative relations with Bangladesh in various sectors.

Warm reception in Bangladesh:

President Mukherjee is highly respected in Bangladesh, not only as President but also as a person. He is known to be modest, affable and polite and could easily relate to any person. President Mukherjee has close family connection with Bangladesh through his wife Madam Shuvra who hails from Sadar upazilla of Narail district.

Bangladesh’s choice Hilsa fish from the Padma River will be on the platter during President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit, according to media.. Besides Hilsa, the Indian president will also be treated to other special culinary delights of Bangladesh.

President Mukherjee is no stranger to Bangladesh. During the 1971 War of Liberation, he was one of the political leaders who supported and assisted the provisional government of Bangladesh and the people of Bangladesh owe a gratitude to him.

He will receive ‘Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona (Bangladesh Freedom Honour)’ a state honour for his outstanding contribution to the Liberation War.

It is noted that Bangladesh AL-led government started honouring foreign friends for their contribution to the country’s liberation war in 2011, when the government conferred Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona upon former prime minister of India Late Indira Ghandi. Her daughter-in-law and Congress President Sonia Gandhi received the honour on her behalf on July 25, 2011.
During the visit, President Mukherjee is expected to receive honorary doctorate degree at a Convocation of Dhaka University and has plans to visit Bhadrabila village, the ancestral home of his in-laws in Narail in Sadar sub-district. Madam Suvra Mukherjee, was born in Bhadrabila village which is located alongside the river Chitra.
According to media reports from Bangladesh, Kanai Lal Ghosh, the president’s brother-in-law, is currently residing at the ancestral home. Madam Mukherjee had last visited the village in 1995, the reports said.
Mukherjee would also visit Shilaidaha Kuthibari, a palatial mansion in Kushtia town where Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore stayed frequently. The country house was built by Tagore’s grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore on the last day of his trip,
All visiting Bangladesh ministers, including Agriculture Minister Begum Matia Chowdhury, who visited India in July 2012 have met President Mukherjee. A delegation of Bangladesh lawmakers who visited India in November as part of Track 2 diplomacy also met the President. Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia called on him at the Presidential Palace in October 2012.

In recent times, brisk activities have commenced in various sectors through the visits of Indian Ministers and top officials. Both sides have been working together to promote pragmatic cooperation in terms of closer economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and made breakthroughs in some other sectors including power.

As a veteran Congress politician, he held a string of influential portfolios in the government including commerce, finance, defense and external affairs over two decades of national reforms. He visited several times Bangladesh in various capacities and had established close rapport with top Awami League leaders.

His last visit as Finance Minister was on 5-6th May of last year to attend the concluding session of Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary celebration. During the visit, he announced that India would write off $200 million dollars of the one billion loaned to Bangladesh for various projects.

In pursuance to the declaration, India’s External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid while visiting Bangladesh this month, handed over a cheque of $50 million on 17th February to the Prime Minister Hasina.

Issues expected to be discussed:

There is a speculation that Bangladesh government may take the opportunity of the visit in discussing two most important outstanding issues with the President. The first one is the Teesta water- sharing agreement which has been stalled since September 2011 because of opposition from the West Bengal state.

The second one is the Land Border Agreement with exchange of enclaves and adverse possession of territories which was held up because of reservation of opposition parties in India.

On 21st February, the President Mukherjee, while addressing the parliament, advocated the passage of a constitutional amendment bill in parliament to make the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh effective.

It is reported that the bill has been introduced in the Lower House (Lok Sabha). Hopefully the Congress-led government will be able to receive support from its opposition parties to obtain two-third majority in the both houses ( Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) of parliament for amendment of the constitution.


It is believed that the resolution of the pending two most important issues will lead not only to the restoration of credibility of India’s promises but also will facilitate the proposed visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s to India in September.

There is a saying that one can choose friends but not neighbours. Bangladesh and India are neighbours and they cannot re-fashion geography. The two countries are destined to live next to each other.. Given the desire to live together in cooperation, two countries may proceed with productive relations through unrelenting efforts in political, economic, social and environmental issues.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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