Friday, September 9, 2011

Mamata Banarjee casts shadow over Bangladesh’s optimism

The Independent
September 6th.,2011

Mamata Banarjee’s last minute exit from Prime Minister Manmohon Singh’s entourage is ominous. That this was in the offing was known to insiders in the Bangladesh Government when the Indian National Security Adviser SS Menon dashed to Dhaka on the 2nd of September after “fine tuning” the visit on an official visit last week.

Quite clearly, the issue is the much anticipated Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. Official West Bengal sources, in fact its Water Minister had said very recently in the media that Bangladesh’s share would be 28% of the dry season flow. The Minister had talked to the media in Kolkata following no doubt after some such signals from New Delhi. It is hard to believe that the Minister would make such a statement without basis.

Thereafter, there was a change of heart in New Delhi to give Bangladesh 50% share of Teesta waters. It must have been the result of media in India that had urged the Indian Prime Minister to be fair to Bangladesh. Mamata Banarjee did not like this change of heart in New Delhi. As a consequence, she has declined to be a part of the entourage.

Prime Minister’s Adviser Mr. Gowhar Rizvi tried to appear calm when confronted by the media to explain the news on Mamata Banarjee. He mumbled words and eventually ended up assuring us that the West Bengal Chief Minister would be coming on a separate visit to Dhaka very soon! He expected us to believe that it is the same or better that she would be coming separately. I am not sure what textbook he is following in negotiating with India but from my experience, Mamata Banarjee’s withdrawal cannot be dismissed so casually.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Minister has finally emerged on the scene. She has confused us ever further. In a press briefing, she has said that the famous land transit would now be set aside and there will be no agreements signed on this subject. Instead the two sides would sign a document covering existing protocols on transit and future deals that the two countries may sign for regional connectivity.

The great hope that was built by the Prime Minister’s negotiators on Bangladesh becoming the regional connectivity hub has now been reduced by the Foreign Minister’s revelation into an “exchange of letter”! This is unbelievable because in negotiations between sovereign countries, “exchange of letter” is no better than an expression of intent. Thus for the next few years, Bangladesh’s hopes of becoming the regional connectivity hub and by that count rich, would have to go to the cold storage!

Clearly, the Froeign Minister has been made the “fall guy” (can’t think of a better expression). Dr. Gowhar Rizvi’s “discovery” late in the day that the two countries have already signed a protocol on land transit in 1979 during the tenure of President Ziaur Rahman has now caused the Government of Bangladesh this embarrassment. The Froeign Minister was thus given the task to tell the nation that on land transit/connectivity, for the moment there would only be an exchange of letter which by diplomatic parlance is nothing more than a promise that India could revert at will.

Our optimism on connectivity is not the only one that has been dealt a near fatal blow. Mamata Banarjee’s withdrawal from the entourage is an equally serious one regarding our high hopes for getting from India a fair share of waters from the Teesta. Mamata Banarjee is a high profile politician and her support is crucial to the Congress and its allies for retaining power. If it is indeed a fact that she has withdrawn from the entourage (our Foreign Ministry knows nothing of this) because of the Centre’s decision to provide Bangladesh 50% share instead of 28%, then the chances of Bangladesh eventually getting 50% share would be in serious doubt.

On this issue too, Dr. Rizvi has assured us not to worry. I am not so sure and like many who understand Indian politics a little bit, I am worried. In 1996, the Centre could sign the Ganges Water Sharing Accord only after the West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu consented to the deal. In this case, a Congress Government that is now under severe pressure politically and needs allies to retain power may not be able to please Bangladesh over the displeasure of West Bengal and Mamata Banarjee. If the proposed Teesta Water Agreement runs into trouble because of Mamata Banarjee, then two of the major areas where Bangladesh was basing its hope to see a friendly India after many decades of a difficult India would run into serious trouble.

Even if the Teesta Agreement eventually gives Bangladesh a 50% share, there could be many ways to deny this as we have seen with the Ganges Accord. I am afraid that with Mamata Banarjee’s objections now known, it would be difficult for Bangladesh to eventually get a fair share of waters of the Teesta to which we were looking forward for setting the standard for sharing the other cross border rivers.

That would leave trade as the third and last major area on which Bangladesh expected to see India make major concessions. According to media information, there would be an agreement during the visit under which 41 news items would be removed from the negative list. If this agreement is signed, Bangladesh could export substantial amount of goods, particularly in the RMG sector, to India. One newspaper report suggested that Bangladesh could end up exporting up to US$ 5 billion in exports to India in the next 5 years which would be well over 10 times what it is now exporting.

Unfortunately, there is no direct relation between enhanced exports and removal of items from the negative list because past experiences in exporting to India in items not in the negative list are not a happy one. These items were subjected to non-tariff barriers that rendered their placement out from the negative list almost useless. Therefore, we must wait and see how Indian Governments at the Centre and States deal with Bangladesh with these new items that would be out of the negative list.

Our negotiating team has confused and worried us by their media interactions over the last few days. Mamata Banarjee has added to more confusion and tension. One has to be very optimistic to hope that the visit of the Indian Prime Minister would lead to that paradigm shift that we were promised ever since Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India nearly 2 years ago. For India though, paradigm shift or no shift, they have made extensive gains on the security concessions granted by our Government.

The writer is a retired career diplomat former Ambassador to Japan.

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