What was supposed to be the singular example of how two neighbouring countries in South Asia could break all negatives to establish a worthy bilateral relationship, which others could follow, was destroyed at one stroke by a petulant Chief Minister of an Indian state.
As the expectations from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka (September 06-07) was building up in India and Bangladesh, West Bengal or now Paschim Bangla Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee pulled the rug from under the feet of the two countries. Ms Banerjee refused to endorse the Teesta river water sharing deal with Bangladesh, which was one of the critical agreements, to be signed during Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit, and on which hinged a lot of other important agreements.
Ms Banerjee’s public position for the pullout was that the final agreement to be signed for a 50:50 water sharing agreement of the Teesta was different from what she was appraised of earlier. This is difficult to believe because she was kept in the loop at every stage, and even National Security Adviser (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon, a veteran diplomat, who has dealt with the most difficult of assignments, met her twice in one week before the Prime Minister’s visit to keep her updated on the process of the agreement.
The truth appears to be elsewhere. Water sharing agreements are difficult and it is easy for politician to raise the ire of the people who use these waters. Mamata Banerjee appears to have suddenly realised the CPM, whom she ousted from West Bengal’s government after 34 years, may use the water issue to attack her. This may well be true, but she should have realised this earlier if she is such a competent political leader as she projects herself to be. The agreement could have been put off earlier on the grounds by India on the genuine grounds that such treaties have to take the affected people on board. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was also in touch separately with Ms Banerjee.
The pullout from the Teesta deal not only embarrassed Prime Minister Singh and India, but also severely damaged the credibility of Bangladesh Foreign Minister Ms Dipu Moni. Dipu Moni has been questioned by sections of the Bangladesh media and the opposition parties as she confidently spoke about the Teesta treaty going through even on September 04.
Ms Banerjee’s proclaim from the rooftops that she and Sheikh Hasina enjoy family relations also goes to embarrass the Bangladesh Prime Minister. People in Bangladesh are beginning to question that if Sheikh Hasina had such close relations with Ms Banerjee, how was she misled? Ms Banerjee may have ousted the CPM government, but she also drove out the Tatas from West Bengal and entered into devils agreement with the Maoists that is going to boomerang. She proved that she was an able street fighter but not one with a larger vision beyond the mohallas of West Bengal.
Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the BNP, had time and again attacked Sheikh Hasina’s government that India never helped Bangladesh but exploited it. Ms Mamata Banerjee has helped prove their point. Things from here on are going to be difficult for bilateral relations.
The first casualty of Ms Banerjee’s decision was the transit treaty with Bangladesh. One of the sufferers will be West Bengal. On a larger canvas, north-east India will be a casualty and along with the trade connections between India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh with rich potential for economic integration and benefit for all concerned. Bangladesh was to be the hub and India the carrier of these countries to common development and prosperity. It will take a lot of time and efforts to repair this damage.
None of the agreements signed with Bangladesh during the visit are major, but they have the potential to set the platform to grow from there. The comprehensive framework on cooperation signed is an umbrella of intent that has to be filled in with concrete work. The protocol on land boundary agreement will help, to a great extent, heal festering sores lingering on for decades. Nepal will gain from the railway transit traffic agreement. The other agreements are nominal.
Overall, there is huge scope for a variety of agreements on trade, investment and economic cooperation, which need to be addressed immediately. India has to remove impediments to Bangladesh exports and address tariff and no-tariff barriers. It is the government initiative that is required from India’s side. The Indian private sector will take time to acclamatise itself to the ground situation in Bangladesh— availability of land, power supply, and political climate. After the callable of the Tata initiative during the BNP regime in Bangladesh, Indian private sector would require reassurance.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit may not be one of dismay. From the mainstream Bangladeshi media reports the message appears that the Teesta issue can be gradually rebuilt, but the momentum of goodwill generated should be lost sight of. The right wing media is replete with ‘I told you so’ on Indian unreliability. This will have to be taken in its stride.
The time for both sides is not too long to take the relations on a firm footing. The next general elections in Bangladesh is hardly a year and a half away. The Awami League will have to demonstrate to the people how well it performed, and its track record till now has been mixed especially in law and order and power sectors. But it can prove that it has taken growth of 7 per cent, and has been acknowledged by the international community as a stable and fast-developing country.
The leading Bangladeshi newspaper, the Daily Star (September 08) was forced to write that Bangladesh must be cautious and take a lesson from the outcome of the summit on how to deal with India. Reviving the transit corridor for India will take massive effort. From a win-win position, Ms Banerjee made it into a lose-lose situation and let the moment slip by.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said he will deliver the Teesta agreement. It is known that once he makes up his mind to pursue a certain policy he does not waver. Both countries can take heart from this that the fracture is repairable.
By Bhaskar Roy