September 8th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam
The summoning of the Indian High Commissioner by the Foreign Secretary while the Indian Prime Minister was in town was the final act of a poor show of Bangladesh’s diplomatic skills. Having been caught with pants down by Mamata Banarjee, the Foreign Ministry tried to come to the rescue of the Advisers who had badly messed up negotiations, where Bangladesh’s high hopes for a deal on Teesta and connectivity were dashed when the nation, thanks to the optimism raised not by India but by our side, was ready to see historic movement in Bangladesh-India relations.
If the Adviser and the Foreign Minister knew the basics of diplomacy, they would not have been caught in the manner they were by Mamata Banarjee. All they needed was to look at files and talk with those with experiences of past negotiations. If they had done so, they would have known what the last AL Government did for the Ganges Water Treaty. While talking with the Centre, the Foreign Ministry simultaneously talked with the West Bengal Government to soften the State’s objections to the deal. In fact, both the Froeign Minister and Water Minister visited Calcutta to bring Jyoti Basu on board and that too, on suggestion of then Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral.
This Government, backed by a confident Foreign Minister and Advisers with Harvard background, did not even know of Mamata Banarjee’s views on Teesta. A check with the Calcutta Deputy High Commission would have revealed the election promises of Trinomool to the people in West Bengal on Teesta. I read on the internet the West Bengal Water Minister stating in the media that the agreement would give Bangladesh 28% share of Teesta waters during the dry season. I read that at least 10 days before the issue exploded on our face.
There was a meeting of JRC set in Dhaka for the 5th of September. Obviously that was for the Teesta deal. It is strange why no one was following preparations for this meeting for if anyone on our side was doing so, the news that the Teesta deal was up for grabs would have been know days ago. The Foreign Minister, who was insisting as late as the evening of the 5th when everyone knew that the deal had gone kaput, would have been saved some embarrassment. More importantly, if our Prime Minister was made aware by her negotiators that Teesta was going down the drain, she could have made a last moment effort with the Indian Prime Minister.
Let me a devil’s advocate for a moment. I cannot blame Mamata Banarjee for she has her constituency that is more important to her than pleasing Bangladesh. How come our negotiators did not get a hint of this for the Foreign Minister is on record as saying in the media that the Teesta Agreement was a done deal a few times over the past few weeks. Was it that they were not negotiating but just believing in what the Indian negotiators were telling them? The Foreign Secretary has stressed on incremental diplomacy. I am disappointed by his lack of public awareness. Where his Minister has announced that Teesta was a done deal and built up such great expectations, he just thought that a fine English phrase would hide the incompetence of the negotiators. He should visit the people who depend on the Teesta, who, irrespective of religion, were praying to God for giving India good sense on the Teesta deal, and explain what he means by incremental diplomacy!
Mamata Banarjee is a politician of great importance in national politics whose support comes from grass roots. To believe that she would by the virtues of incremental diplomatic skills of our negotiators, agree very soon to give Bangladesh a 50% share of Teesta waters would be expecting something that is not likely to happen anytime soon. To the Congress, her importance and that of her party is more than that of the Indian Prime Minister himself. Where her interests are in question, no Congress government would even be inclined to re-open Teesta negotiations, not for the immediate future.
Bangladesh has closed the connectivity issue because on India’s backtracking on the Teesta deal. It had no other choice to save the ruling party in domestic politics. In any case, the connectivity deal had come to the point of withering away in days leading to the visit because of poor diplomacy of our negotiators who did not seem to know what they were negotiating. Just days before the visit, Dr. Rizvi said as the regional connectivity hub in the making with Indian help, Bangladesh would become so rich from trade and commerce that it could very well forget the fees from transit!
The question therefore is how come he or no one in our negotiating team knew what was coming. More importantly, what was it that convinced our negotiators to have such confidence on the Indians with whom they were negotiating that they were not even checking the basics? If they had checked history of Bangladesh-India relations, they would have been cautious and not been caught with their pants down and embarrassed themselves and the nation. If they had checked files in the Foreign Ministry, they could have negotiated professionally instead like amateurs. Finally, why is it that our principal negotiators were telling those who were suspicions of India that they were dead wrong and insisting that India is a generous power that is eager to help Bangladesh is all ways it needed? Why were they arguing the Indian case more strongly than the Indians?
India’s betrayal and our negotiators amateurish negotiating skills have wasted the opportunity that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had created by her courageous decision to assure India on its security concerns and offer it land transit for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. What this visit has achieved, like the 41 items off the negative list and the different MOUs could have been achieved without the visit. Between what the visit promised and what it achieved, the word disappointment would be too mild to describe. Nevertheless, relations with India must be carried forward and for that our side must take lessons from the mistakes they made, and they made plenty of that. Simply by putting the blame on India would be a humungous mistake for future negotiations. Our side must evaluate how important the security card is to India. By doing the favour with the ULFA terrorists, Bangladesh has helped India break that many decades old insurgency almost completely. Negotiating this favour alone successfully should have brought Bangladesh much more than the 41 items off the negative list.
Although Manmohon Singh has made Mamata Banarjee happy and secured his job and the fate of Congress led coalition, he must know that he has messed up a major opportunity to take Bangladesh-India relations to a new level. Thinking of this, it was another major mistake our negotiators made, believing that a weak Prime Minister like Manmohon Singh would deliver us what they led us to believe since the 56 paragraph Joint Communiqué was issued after Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi visit. I recollect, with some regret the article I had written for The Daily Star when this JC was issued. I had titled the article as: “We get promises and India gets concessions”. After almost 2 years of living in hope, Bangladesh-India relations are back to future promises and incremental diplomacy while our rivers get drier and our once fertile land move dangerously close towards desertification.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan