With connectivity at the centre of the Bangladesh-India bilateral relationship celebrations, Dhaka now eyes bringing neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan on board, say diplomatic sources.
They said connectivity would dictate the discussion between Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her counterpart Narendra Modi during the Indian prime minister's two-day Dhaka visit from 26 March.
To transport goods from the mainland to India's north-eastern regions using the Bay of Bengal, Delhi is likely to bring a maritime transportation proposal to the discussion table, said the sources.
Besides, the two leaders' talks on 27 March will focus on trade and water management, security and border management.
Meanwhile, on the eve of his Dhaka visit, Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi on Thursday said his visit would not only be an occasion to convey appreciation for Bangladesh's remarkable economic and developmental strides, but also "to commit India's abiding support for those achievements".
"I will be having substantive discussions with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, following our very productive virtual meeting in December last year," said Modi.
The sources familiar with the discussion plan said the government wants to turn Bangladesh into the gateway for south and south-east Asia – a multimodal hub for connectivity. To that end, Dhaka will allow Nepal to transport goods using Bangladesh's waterways and territory under the existing shipping protocols between Bangladesh and India.
Dhaka also wants to transport goods to Bhutan using India's territory.
Connecting Nepal and Bhutan by road and rail, Dhaka has already requested Delhi to operate freights on five routes. Dhaka may now raise the issue at the bilateral meeting again and ask for prompt implementation.
The routes are Nepal's Mechinagar, Biratnagar, Birgunj by road, Rohanpur-Singhabad by rail, and Chilahati-Haldibari rail route to get connected with Bhutan.
"Since both Nepal and Bhutan are landlocked countries, connectivity with them without India is difficult," said Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen. He said the two countries on the edge of the Himalayas also want Bangladesh to play a leading role in liaising with India.
Cargo transport with India has already started through the Chilahati-Haldibari rail route while passenger transport will be inaugurated during Modi's Dhaka visit.
"India's approval will be required to establish a rail link from Chilahati to Bhutan as some parts of the route are on Indian region. Bangladesh will raise the issue during Modi's visit," Momen said at a briefing on Wednesday.
Standing on the golden jubilee of Indo-Bangla foreign relations, foreign policy analysts said the two countries have some significant achievements such as land boundary agreement and settling the long-standing India-Bangladesh maritime boundary dispute.
But India's responses to several issues such as water-sharing of Teesta River, border killing, trade deficit, and Rohingya repatriation have dogged bilateral relations and prompted considerable disquiet in Dhaka.
Though it has been confirmed beforehand that there would be no deal on Teesta water-sharing during Narendra Modi's Dhaka visit this time, Bangladesh will put forward the issue.
Modi's 32-hour tour schedules
The Indian premier will arrive in Dhaka at 11am on Friday. He will receive a guard of honour at the airport.
Then, Narendra Modi will pay homage to the Liberation War martyrs at the National Memorial in Savar. In the afternoon, he will join the celebrations of the golden jubilee of Bangladesh's independence and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's birth centenary at the national parade ground.
In the evening, he will jointly visit the Bangabandhu-Bapu Digital Exhibition with his counterpart Sheikh Hasina at the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre.
On the second day of the visit, Modi will pay homage to Bangabandhu at Tungipara in Gopalganj. On Saturday morning, he will also visit Satkhira's Shyamnagar Jeshoreshwari Temple and Orakandi Thakur Bari in Gopalganj's Kashiani.
Apart from a private meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a bilateral meeting will be held at the representative level on the same afternoon.
The two prime ministers will unveil two separate commemorative stamps on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations.
Besides, the Indian prime minister will pay a courtesy call on President Abdul Hamid at his office. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will leave Dhaka for Delhi on 27 March night.
The two prime ministers will inaugurate the renovated Kuthibari in Shelaidaha, Independence Road from Meherpur's Mujibnagar to Kolkata via Nadia in West Bengal, a memorial to Indian soldiers who embraced martyrdom in 1971, passenger trains on the Chilahati-Haldibari route and three border haats.
The Indian Prime Minister will also hand over 109 Indian ambulances to Bangladesh.
At least six MoUs likely
Bangladesh and India are likely to sign at least six memorandums of understanding (MoU) during Modi's Dhaka visit.
Those include two grant agreements – establishment of India and Bangladesh digital service and employment training centres in six districts and establishment of sports facilities in Rajshahi.
Other agreements are forming an experts group on trade remedy measures, cooperation on marine fishing, cooperation on environmental protection, and cooperation between the National Staff Colleges of the two countries and cooperation on culture.
India has proposed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (SEPA) on trade benefits as Bangladesh becomes a middle-income country.
Bangladesh currently enjoys trade benefits from India under the South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) agreement. There might be a joint declaration on a joint study on the nature of trade benefits as Bangladesh graduates to a developing country.
The two leaders might come up with a joint declaration on water management of the common rivers.
Professor Delwar Hossain, former chair of the Department of International Relations at Dhaka University, said though the Indian premier will visit Dhaka to join the celebrations, there will be talks, discussions and agreements on bilateral issues.
"Our success will depend on how much we can use it," he noted.
The professor believes the focus should be on implementing the two top leaders' decisions on business, connectivity, and investment.
"The observers will be paying close attention to how much we can influence India on the Rohingya issue. However, since diplomacy is dynamic in nature, it has to be considered from a constructive perspective," he concluded.