Sunday, September 11, 2011

Manmohan Singh’s visit: Lessons for Bangladesh

Daily Sun
September 11th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The Finance Minister is the eternal optimist like the Foreign Minister. The latter was still hoping on the evening of 5th hours after Indian Froeign Secretary Ranjan Mathai had spelled out categorically that the Teesta deal was off as the WB Chief Minister had objected to it that an agreement was still on the cards. Now the Finance Minister expects an agreement in 3 months.

Clearly neither knows India or Indian politics intimately. Mamata Banarjee has just come to power after many decades of Communist rule on populist issues of which assuring 5 WB districts that use water of the Teesta that their interests would not be sacrificed for those of Bangladesh was one. She is a heavy weight in Indian national politics where her party is crucial for the Congress led Government to retain power. In politics, everything is possible and Mamata could change her stand. If that happens, it would be something unusual and diplomacy and negotiations should not depend on the unusual happening.

That raises a critical question. What were Bangladesh negotiators doing? Were they assured by the Indians that an agreement on 50/50 sharing was a done deal? If that was so, then our side needs to tell the public about it. Even if such an assurance was given, the Bangladesh negotiators should have talked with Mamata Banarjee as the negotiators had done in 1996 with Jyoti Basu for the Ganges deal. In the latter case, it was Delhi that had suggested to Bangladesh to go to Kolkata and that was what clinched the agreement.

A check with Mamata Banarjee would have informed Bangladesh where she stood on Teesta. If our negotiators had this information, a number of diplomatic options would have opened for them not to have landed Bangladesh to face the embarrassment at the eleventh hour. Instead, we opted for an immature option which was to make the Foreign Secretary call the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Ministry and tell him that because India had aborted the Teesta deal, Bangladesh was opting out of the transit deal. He perhaps forgot that our negotiators had brought down the land transit to a mere “exchange of letters” and there was no agreement on the table for signature.

This was done when the guest was in Dhaka. In diplomatic parlance, this is an insult. A correct action would have been for the Prime Minister to call the Indian Prime Minister on the 5th just after the Indian Foreign Secretary had announced that the Teesta deal was off and expressed Bangladesh’s disappointment. The transit deal could have been called off diplomatically. At least, a call from the Prime Minister would have convinced the nation that Bangladesh had been betrayed at the 11th hour by India.

Indians are tough customers. If they have taken umbrage with the ‘threat”, Bangladesh would have to pay a price at a later stage as it has in the past. What we are calling betrayal by India can very well be explained by India simply by saying that they tried their best to convince Mamata Banarjee but failed and that there was little else that the Centre could do for Bangladesh. The “threat” to the High Commissioner was diplomatically indecent and cannot be explained as easily.

In fact, the way Bangladesh has negotiated could be a case study of negotiations with the mindset of boy scouts. After the Foreign Minister had laid the foundations of good things in the offing and the Prime Minister made her historic trip to New Delhi and unilaterally offered India dream concessions on security and land transit, the negotiations were placed at the hands of two of the Prime Minister’s Advisers. Neither had any experience in diplomatic negotiations nor the benefit of institutional support as head of a Ministry.

They seemed to have had a pre-conceived notion that India has been misunderstood in Bangladesh; that India is a generous nation that is eager to help Bangladesh in all its needs. They chastised past negotiators for not giving India the land transit decades ago and those at present who asked India to pay transit fees. If the two Advisers were sitting in the Foreign Ministry or being advised by the professionals there, they would have benefitted from knowledge of how India behaved with Bangladesh in the past. The career diplomats would have cautioned them not to take Indian assurances on face value.

Nevertheless, Bangladesh has no alternatives but to re-start negotiations with India. It must do so by taking lessons from past mistakes. Its major mistake was the choice of the negotiating team. This must change and all negotiations must be placed in the Foreign Ministry and to the professional diplomats. Of course, the Advisers and anyone else the Prime Minister wants could be part of the negotiating but not as leaders which should be left to those who know and understand diplomatic negotiations.

The Prime Minister herself could take the leadership as she had done in 1996 with the Ganges Water Treaty and achieved results with the Foreign Ministry by her side. There are extremely capable diplomats in our Foreign Ministry who may not be Harvard trained but much better when it comes to negotiating for our interests. It is time to let them play their rightful role. We must remember that on the Indian side, the ground work negotiations were carried out at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the leadership of the Joint Secretary (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives) as always.

To get from India its rights, Bangladesh must go to India united and not just on behalf of the party in power. That was a major weakness of Bangladesh’s negotiating strategy. With the ruling party now looking at the next elections and its popularity considerably weakened because of its failure to deliver on its election promises, it is very unlikely that India would make major concessions at this stage of negotiations. Bangladesh’s case with India has weakened considerably for this reason.
The BNP is happy that the transit deal has got stuck. The AL is now saying that the transit deal is off and tying it to the Teesta agreement. This has opened an opportunity to the ruling party to reach out to the opposition for a common platform for negotiating with India. Unless Bangladesh goes to India as united as it did 1971, it would be naïve to expect that India would make the concessions on water and maritime issues upon which the viability and the future of Bangladesh rests. Unfortunately, it would also be hoping too much that the AL and the BNP would meet at a common platform on India that lets India treat us the way it has, casually and non-seriously.

Nevertheless, the security card has become more crucial for India. Despite Bangladesh’s open door policy to India’s security needs since the AL came to power, the latter needs more time and bipartisan offer for fulfilling its security requirements fully. Even with the latest terrorist attack in New Delhi, accusing fingers are being pointed at Bangladesh. This should make Bangladesh think that a bipartisan offer to India on its security concerns could be priceless and that if it could play this card competently, India would be more than willing to meet Bangladesh’s demands on water, trade and maritime boundary or at least be moved to take Bangladesh seriously.

Meanwhile, the Seven Sisters have already seen the benefits of Bangladesh’s cooperation and land transit. The Tripura Chief Minister did not hide this when talking to the media in Dhaka. The Assam Chief Minister did not know how to thank Bangladesh for breaking ULFA insurgency. These States are the ones that Bangladesh would need to cultivate for future negotiations with India. They would also be helpful in tackling Mamata Banarjee, although with her, Bangladesh would need to do a great deal more itself.

For future negotiations, Bangladesh would need to carefully consider two developments. First is Manmohon Singh’s statement on the visit given from his aircraft while returning to Delhi that is available on his website. Second, is the news in Ananda Bazar Patrika of conservation between Mamata Banarjee and SS Menon. In the first, the Indian Prime Minister has laid all the blame on Mamata Banarjee for the failure of the Teesta deal. In the second, Mamata Banarjee has accused SS Menon and by that count New Delhi of unethical behaviour. In the conservation, Mamata Banarjee told him that the draft she had approved gave Bangladesh 28% share and that she would not sign an agreement giving Bangladesh 50% that would go against her State. SS Menon pleaded with her to sign and not worry as New Delhi would “manage” things to protect WB’s interests!

Bangladesh is thus caught in power play between the Centre and WB where the latter is now the strongest politically in Indian history. Then there is India’s habbit of deceit going by the Ananda Bazar Patrika report. In fact, the Indians have done this and got away with it with the Ganges water Treaty where the draft upon which the Bangladesh side negotiated and the one that was signed were different.

The Teesta deal is seriously struck in deep abyss. In fact, water that is our primary concern with India has drifted away further in terms of resolution as a result of the visit. In fact, as days go by, the chances of Bangladesh getting its fair share of the waters of the cross border rivers is moving away from a fair resolution because of upstream withdrawal. The much heralded Ganges Accord is not fetching us the agreed share anymore and its effects are already there for everyone to see. The way out is a regional solution involving Nepal, Bhutan and China which India does not approve because it is getting its need of waters through bilateral agreements with Nepal and Bhutan.

Our Prime Minister now with the nation behind her should seek that objective and link it to the land transit and security. This is the way out for Bangladesh. In she chooses to do so and can; she will gain the respect in New Delhi that she and Bangladesh deserves. Otherwise India will play as it always has, giving Bangladesh peanuts and getting the cake. In present negotiations too due to our botched up negotiations, we ended giving India the ULFA terrorists for it to end ULFA insurgency and in return promises of doing business with 41 new items and the assurance of24 hours entry at the 3 Bigha Corridor. One is almost 2 decades in the coming and the other 37 years! The Foreign Secretary is right; we are indeed succeeding with our incremental diplomacy where success comes in decades; not in months or years!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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