Monday, May 28, 2012

On Hillary Clinton’s Kolkata visit and lessons for Bangladesh
"As I See It" column
The Independent
25 May, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The Washington Post thinks that Mamata Banarjee had a great meeting with the US Secretary of State. In a front page report in one its recent issues; the hour long meeting between the two has been described as “warm, vibrant and energetic.” The Secretary herself described the meeting with Mamata Banarjee as a “remarkable” experience.

Yet the Chief Minister of Paschim Bangla has recently emerged as a major obstacle to US interests in India. She has been the main force in derailing a major reform agenda of Prime Minister Manmohon Singh in which the US had a major interest, namely allowing foreign retail chains an entry to the Indian market. In line to enter the Indian market was the well known US retail chain Wal-Mart. The reform agenda has been derailed by Mamata Banarjee to defend the poor shop keepers in her province. 

When the US Secretary of State included Bangladesh and West Bengal as destinations in between her important meetings in Beijing and New Delhi, many failed to predict the right reasons for these two destinations being included on that trip. There was one similarity though in the Secretary’s stops in Dhaka and Kolkata. Like Mamata Banarjee, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also declined the US request made by both Hillary Clinton and President Obama on  Dr. Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank.   

In the end, the Secretary’s visit to Dhaka and Kolkata brought different and contrasting results for the two leaders she met in Dhaka and Kolkata. In both Bangladesh and Paschim Bangla, there is growing disenchantment with the ruling party. Mamata Banarjee came to office last year overthrowing a deeply entrenched Communist government riding a popularity wave. Of late, many who voted her to power are deeply disappointed with her style of politics. They now feel that the choice between the Communists and Trinamool is one between the devil and the deep blue sea. 

In Bangladesh, the ruling AL came to office three years ago with a massive mandate. People in Bangladesh are now disenchanted with the ruling party because of its style of governance and failure to make any headway with the major issues of concern of the people. However, in Kolkata, the US Secretary strengthened that position of Mamata Banarjee in Paschim Bangla and India. Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayyar called the visit to Kolkata   “an unexpected vote of confidence amid a growing perception of disenchantment with her (Mamata Banarjee’s) style and substance of governance.” In Bangladesh, the Secretary endorsed the opposition’s agenda by taking a critical view of the government. 

Mamata Banarjee has been able to attract US attention positively even though she has come directly coming into confrontation with furthering US interest in India. In fact, it is not just the US that is taking an interest in the mercurial politician; Mamata Banarjee has drawn similar attention in the West in general. Most recently, TIME magazine has named her in 2012 as one of the 100 most influential people of the world. The interest of the US and the West in Mamata Banarjee has of course been encouraged by the fact that she has overthrown a well entrenched communist regime.  

However, there are many aspects of her personality and personal life that have contributed to the US Secretary’s positive interest in her. Her humble origin that  she has not forgotten by staying in the same house in a “8 by 8 feet “ room  that she has occupied for a long time in a “Kolkata neighborhood beside a foul smelling open drain” , is one. That she is “the only woman who has risen to political power in South Asia without being the widow or the orphaned daughter of an established leader”   is another. 

The US Secretary has also been drawn towards a personal rapport with Mamata Banarjee because of a “common bond” for “women who have broken through barriers of discrimination and braved the fire of electoral politics.” Above all, Mamata Banarjee has been able to convince the Secretary that her stand that has gone against the USA and many of the Indian Prime Minister’s economic reform agenda is one of principle taken to help the poor. 

In a way the visit of the US Secretary to Kolkata has indirectly complicated Bangladesh’s interests with India. The credibility she has given to Mamata Banarjee at a time when her style of politics has been making  her unpopular in her own province and India, will  encourage her to keep Bangladesh waiting longer for the Teesta water sharing agreement. She will do so to pressure the Centre for achieving her demands because New Delhi is as restless as Dhaka for signing the agreement that is crucial to encourage Bangladesh to give India continued security cooperation and the finalize the trial run on land transit.

The Bangladesh government could do itself a favour and analyze Hillary Clinton’s trip to Kolkata to find out, first, why she ended her trip to Kolkata with respect for the Chief Minister enhanced, and second, why she made such critical comments about the Bangladesh government that have done a huge favour to the opposition while she spared Mamata any embarrassment at all on the issue of governance. In Paschim Bangla, Mamata Banarjee has messed up governance that has earned her the nickname of “Queen of demo-crazy.” 

The politics that Mamata Banarjee is playing with New Delhi is also becoming increasingly complex.  She is  using Trinamool’s  19 seats in the 543 seats Lok Shaba  which is critical for the survival of the Congress led UPA coalition at the centre  not just for furthering the interests of Paschim Bangla and the poor of India  but also for a greater political end, namely to wrest substantial political power from New Delhi for the Indian provinces.   Bangladesh’s interests  have become a casualty in that pursuit. 

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Kolkata has flagged for Bangladesh a note of caution against fond hopes that Mamata Banarjee would anytime soon relent on the Teesta.  It has also flagged the mistake our negotiators made when they by-passed Mamata Banarjee while negotiating with New Delhi because they thought they could only deal only with its sovereign equal on bilateral issues. Sovereign equality did not stop the US Secretary of State from going to Kolkata to talk to her; it unfortunately stopped our Foreign Minister from doing the same with unfortunate consequences. This is another lesson for our foreign policy managers. Unfortunately this one has come rather late.   

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

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