March 9, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
It is a pity that the present Government has to contend with Mamata Banarjee who has emerged as the proverbial party spoiler for the Awami League Government. When Sheikh Hasina could have been basking in glory for taking Bangladesh-India relations by the scruff from the doldrums of stagnancy to a paradigm shift to mutually beneficial relations, she has been left high and dry having given India major concessions on security and land transit without receiving the expected concessions from India. Failure to get an agreement on Teesta and delay in executing the enclaves exchange deal, both on account of Mamata Banarjee, has put Sheikh Hasina in a very soft spot politically.
In 1996, the government of Sheikh Hasina had been able to get then West Bengal’s support for a water deal more important and more complicated than the Teesta. The Ganges Water Agreement was reached within six months of Sheikh Hasina assuming office in 1996. Successful negotiations with Deve Gowde who was then Prime Minister paved the Centre’s approval to the deal. However it was Delhi that had then told Bangladesh the a Ganges water deal would need approval of West Bengal and that Bangladesh would need to take WB Chief Minister Jyoti Basu on board.
Bangladesh did just that. Then Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad visited Kolkata and met the Chief Minister who also came on an official visit to Dhaka. At that time, New Delhi, Dhaka and Kolkata were on same wave length. Things were all over board. However, at that time Devi Gowde was a weak Prime Minister and Jyoti Basu was a powerful Chief Minister whose party’s influence was also important for Delhi. Importantly, the government in New Delhi was not even a Congress Government and Bangladesh at that time had made no major or minor concessions to India.
This time, it is the Congress in power in New Delhi that returned to office for a consecutive term more or less at the same time as the Awami League. Both parties were given major support by the people in the respective countries. Historically, due to factors embedded in the events of 1971, the affinity between the Congress and the Awami League is deep. On top of it, this time Sheikh Hasina made the first moves with concessions to India that were fulfillment of Indian dreams.
It is such a positive setting that has been messed up. Two politicians made major accusations against the Advisers who have led the Bangladesh negotiations for the mess up. Former President HM Ershad and Rashed Khan Menon have blamed the Prime Minister’s Advisers, using very harsh language. Rashed Khan Menon said that the Advisers have acted as Advisers to the Indian Prime Minister rather than to Sheikh Hasina. HM Ershad has said that the Advisers are “in favour of India”. While the accusations are unfortunate and extreme, such views nevertheless highlight the fact that the India factor has become a very major political issue in Bangladesh’s politics as the parties enter into the final stretch leading to the next general elections in about 2 years’ time.
President Ershad is the veritable weather cock of Bangladesh’s politics and his remark about the Advisers has a lot of political meaning. He has already led marches to benefit from people’s frustrations with India on Teesta, Tippaimukh and recently on the Feni River. In fact, he is playing the “India card” more strongly than the BNP while being a partner of the ruling coalition that underlines the fact that the ruling party is politically in a very tight corner with the poor way it has negotiated with India thus far.
The Advisers’ role notwithstanding, the real accusing finger is being pointed both by New Delhi and Dhaka at Mamata Banarjee for the failure of India to deliver on the promises it made after accepting the Bangladesh concessions. . When Mamata Banarjee led her party Trinamool to victory in Paschim Bangla in May last year, she was fondly projected in the Bangladesh media as an ally to our efforts to get India to agree to our legitimate interests and rights from India. In fact, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also called her on phone to congratulate her on her victory. She was taken for granted so much so that no one on our side cared that that at about the time of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, she was facing the electorate in the Teesta area in Paschim Bangla. If anyone had done so, it would have emerged as daylight that there was no way for her to offer Bangladesh 50% of the share of Teesta water because, first, India had never agreed in the past to give Bangladesh more than 28% share, and second, the people using Teesta waters had urged Mamata Banarjee not to enter in to any deal that could affect them adversely.
Facts about how and why she has today turned out to be the major block in Bangladesh’s efforts are now emerging. Former Foreign Affairs Adviser Dr. Iftikhar Ahmed Chowdhury who now is a Senior Research Fellow at Institute of South Asian Studies at the University of Singapore has just written a research article on Mamata Banarjee. The article has given insight to the questions our side should have asked instead of taking MB for granted. Then there are issues of history, culture, etc that Dr. Chowdhury have brilliantly brought into his analysis leaving readers wondering if our negotiators even knew a little bit about Mamata Banarjee or had cared to know about her. If they had, they would have saved themselves from wasting Sheikh Hasina’s vision and courage because as the cliché goes, “forewarned is forearmed.”
There are some ominous facts that Dr. Chowdhury has revealed in his paper that our negotiators must read for a grip on reality instead of fondly hoping some power will emerge from the heavens and turn Mamata and Manmohon into angels for making Bangladesh smile. Mamata Banarjee is no ordinary lady or any run of the mill politicians. She has not just taken on Manmohon Singh and making him dance to her tunes; she is simultaneously fighting two of India’s most powerful politicians simultaneously and so far, winning.
In choosing her Cabinet, she spurned Pranab Mukherjee by declining to give a post to his son. Instead, she offered him a lowly bureaucratic post of Chairman of the State’s Industrial Development Corporation. Most recently, she teamed up with a few other Chief Ministers and torpedoed a pet project of the other most powerful politician in New Delhi, Home Minister P. Chidambaram. They shot down the establishment of the National Counter Terrorism Centers on the plea that the matter of law and order is a state subject and not a central one. The major source of MB’s power base is the 19 seats that her party Trinamool contributes to the Congress led UPA coalition of Prime Minister Manmohon Singh. The seats are simply put, crucial to the Congress’s survival.
That power of MB was palpably visible when Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai mentioned categorically on the evening of 5th September last year that as Mamata Banarjee had objected to the Teesta deal, it was being taken off the table for Prime Minister Manmohon Singh’s talks the next day in Dhaka with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The Indian Foreign Secretary flagged for us the power of MB that we should have known weeks and months earlier instead of being led up the garden path totally unaware of the perils ahead. In fact, even after Ranjan Mathai’s statement, our side was still hoping an agreement would be signed the following day!
Mamata Banarjee has now said that any agreement of Teesta must wait till she knows for certain on how much water would be available in the river for sharing with Bangladesh. It is just not the 50/50 sharing that is the only contentious issue. She is also insisting that the water available on the Bangladesh side where there is barrage must also be calculated before the sharing formula is agreed upon. Clearly, the Teesta agreement is caught in the quicksand and with it, our hopes for a just share of its waters anytime soon.
Mamata Banarjee has also set her sights at the exchange of enclaves and has objected to the agreement. Recently, our Home Minister has returned from New Delhi with the assurance that the issue would be placed in the next session of the Indian parliament for ratification. In fact, she has submitted it to the cabinet that it is the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement that would be placed for ratification 37 years after it was signed! The way she put it made it appear like that the ratification would be done easily. She failed to ask the Indians what they proposed to do with MB’s objection to the exchanges. Her party’s support would be crucial for the 2/3rd majority in both houses of the India parliament that would be required to ratify the agreement on the exchange of enclaves.
Mamata Banarjee has clearly chosen to use the “Bangladesh card” in the political game she is playing with New Delhi. With BJP also opposed to the exchange of enclaves, one must wonder what it is that has led our Home Minister to be convinced that India would ratify the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement. One element of the Agreement gave Bangladesh “lease in perpetuity” over the Teen Bigha corridor. Is that going to happen instead of the 24hours’ access to the Dahagram-Angorpota enclaves? Either this is a fond wish of our negotiators or someone has got the issues mixed up!
The Congress had expected that elections in the five Indian states, including UP, would give it some leverage over Mamata Banarjee. In particular, the Congress was hoping that a good show in UP where Rahul Gandhi staked his claim to be the next Prime Minister of India on line would send a message to Mamata Banarjee that the popularity of the Congress is on an upswing. Unfortunately, the news from UP is not good. Congress fared very badly although it did gain some seats and did not do its national image any good. Mayabati’s Bahujan Samajbadi Dal has lost badly but the swing has gone to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajbadi Dal where his son Akhilesh Yadav has captured the nation’s attention as the face of the new generation well ahead of Rahul Gandhi.
The state elections are thus not expected to lessen Mamata Banarjee’s political value to the Centre as no helping hand is expected to come to the Congress from the state elections. Clearly, the leverage to come out of the predicament in which Bangladesh finds itself is not with us. Mamata Banarjee is holding the whip hand. We have lost our handle on influencing events in the way we did our diplomacy with India. Bangladesh would now be left watching how much and to what extent Mamata Banarjee plays the “Bangladesh card”.
Nevertheless, in diplomacy there is never a lost case and the scenes quickly change as they do in a drama. For our own interest, we need to know more about Mamata Banarjee and take lessons from past mistakes following the merit in another cliché, better late than never. In this context, those negotiating should on a priority basis read Dr. Iftekhar Chowdhury’s article. Better still, they should take his advice for future course of action on how to deal with Mamata Banarjee.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.