India: from non-alignment to multi-alignment
July 22, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
I thought that Shahshi Tharoor, the flamboyant former Indian State Minister for External Affairs, was down and out politically after he was forced to resign for using his official position to get shares in the IPL cricket franchise of Cochin, a charge he rejected but resigned nevertheless as that was the wish of the Prime Minister. It was good to see him surface in the media in Bangladesh very recently. It was more refreshing that he surfaced on issues significant to Bangladesh where an Indian leader has spoken on behalf of Bangladesh’s interests.
Shahshi Tharoor, international civil servant and a Member of Parliament, is also a prolific and award winning author. He has come to news in Bangladesh over his recently launched book “Pax Indica: India and the world of 21st century.” In it he has taken a a swipe at the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banarjee for her unreasonable stand on the issue of sharing of the water of the Teesta with Bangladesh. Shahshi Tharoor has argued that the Paschim Bangla Chief Minister should be persuaded not to think of waters of the common rivers as “ours” to give but as shared natural resources that should be used equitably and responsibly.
He brought into reference the Indus Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan that has been based on the principle that the waters of international rivers are common natural resources to be shared. In fact, when we negotiate with the Indians on our water concerns, it is a regrettable that the Indus Treaty has not been brought into the equation and used as a basis for sharing of the waters of all the rivers we share with India, 54 in all.
Of course, the reason has always been India that has never accepted in Bangladesh-India relations that the international rivers are for sharing between the upper and the lower riparian. It has always negotiated with Bangladesh with the mindset that Shahshi Tharoor has ascribed to Mamata Banarjee. In fact, an Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka not too long ago went to the media in Bangladesh to highlight that there is no international law governing sharing of waters of international rivers. Hence he concluded that Bangladesh has no claims under international law for a share of the water of the Ganges except what India provided out of goodwill!
He brushed aside the conventions that have been signed internationally on cross boundary rivers that should at least have given Bangladesh some claim to the waters of the common rivers. In fact, the High Commissioner retorted angrily in the media that there was not enough water in the Ganges at Farakkha to share with Bangladesh according to the terms of the 1996 accord between the two countries as a result of upstream withdrawal on the Indian side west of the Farakkha barrage in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that he thought was perfectly legitimate.
In fact, the High Commissioner did not say anything new with his comments on the Ganges water sharing. He just underscored the Indian position that Bangladesh has no legal claim on the waters of the international rivers. The Indians tend to view that if waters are depleted upstream in the international rivers that run through India into Bangladesh, then so be it. They have long toyed and annoyed Bangladesh by suggesting that it should agree to link the Brahmaputra with the Ganges through Bangladesh territory to replenish the waters available at Farakkha so that Bangladesh could receive the share of water it needed!
Bangladesh has always rejected such a view as totally unacceptable. Nevertheless, the Indians instead of accepting Bangladesh’s rights have recently stated its desire to link the two great rivers through its territory. The Indians by these views have taken a stand in contrast to the one Shahshi Tharoor has advocated. In fact, the Indians have shown the same mindset as Mamata Banarjee’s in its decision to build the Tippaimukh Dam without consulting with Bangladesh. The Indians have thus continued to withdraw waters of the common rivers upstream on their side at will without caring that such unilateral action’s surest outcome would be to turn Bangladesh into a desert, signs of which are already evident in northwest Bangladesh.
Shahshi Tharoor has spoken against this view of the Indians, that the waters of the international rivers are “shared natural resources” and should be used “equitably and responsibly.” He feels that an agreement on Teesta water sharing is indispensible for Sheikh Hasina to convince her people that Bangladesh “has gained from friendship with India.”
He also made references to India’s failure to deliver on the land boundary agreement/exchange of enclaves that has been stuck up in the Indian parliament where a ratification by 2/3rd majority is required to give effect to the agreement reached during the Indian Prime Minister’s to Dhaka in September last year. He said that the centre should make serious effort to ratify the agreement to avoid the perception from growing in strength that India does not deliver on promises.
These are very refreshing concepts and views, something that has not come from Indian leader with the background such as the one that Shahshi Tharoor has. He is a leading member of the parliamentary committee on external affairs. He is influential in the party. If only his views could have reached the Indian foreign policy makers at South Block and the PMO, then the great opportunity that had opened up in Bangladesh-India relations by Sheikh Hasina’s politically risky initiatives would not have been wasted.
Shahshi Tharoor’s book is of course devoted to other major issues of Indian foreign policy and the references to Bangladesh are not the book’s primary focus. He has written the quality of Indian diplomacy in mixed terms that he has described as “like the love making of an elephant: it is conducted at very high level, accompanied by much bellowing and its results are not known for two years.”
He has argued in favour of importance of foreign affairs in an India focused on domestic transformation and has made serious observations about Indian foreign policy that are also refreshing. He has suggested that it is time that India made a meaningful transition from non-alignment to multi-alignment. He has underscored the perils of small countries living with a big neighbour and has referred to the predicament of the Mexicans vis-à-vis the Americans. In this context, he has highlighted India’s over-bearing presence in South Asia. About Indian diplomats, he has written that they are brilliant in wining arguments but then goes on to add that diplomacy is more about winning friends than arguments.
Shahshi Tharoor has attempted to build a “grand strategy” for Indian foreign policy to assist it in its march to greater glory. In this strategy, there is just not hope for a better and greater India; there is hope for India’s neighbours too only if the Indian foreign policy makers would take his views and suggestions seriously and apply it to its neighbour. India’s grand strategy envisaged by Shahshi Tharoor, one from non-alignment to multi-alignment, would do very well for India and South Asia with a dosage of the now forgotten Gujral Doctrine.
The writer is a former career Ambassador to Japan and Egypt