16 FEBRUARY, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
Bangladesh-India relations have picked up tail wind in recent weeks after remaining stuck in the doldrums since the disappointing visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September, 2011 on the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement (TWSA) and the land boundary agreement (LBA) issues. There has been a flurry of visits, some already undertaken and more scheduled over the next few weeks and months that brought the Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai to Dhaka early this week. The Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid will be in town next week followed by the visit of the Indian President early next month, his first overseas visit since assuming office. A visited by the Bangladesh Prime Minister to New Delhi in August is bring talked about but yet to be confirmed.
A team from the Indian Foreign Ministry had visited Dhaka prior to the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary to line up these visits. Before that the Indian Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde came to Dhaka in early January and signed the Extradition Treaty and the Indian Power Secretary P Uma Shankar was in Bangladesh in end of January to set up cooperation in the power sector. The good work from these visits are expected to be crystallized in the shape of the long awaited agreements that had stalled Bangladesh-India relations since the visit of Manmohon Singh, namely the TWSA and the LBA for which the Bangladesh Prime Minister is expected to go to New Delhi.
The Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, while reacting in the media during his press conference after the conclusion of his official talks with his Bangladeshi counterpart Shahidul Haque, said that both the issues would be resolved in the “shortest possible time.” The TWSA is stuck in Paschim Bangla (PB). The state’s mercurial Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee (MB) used the powers given by the India constitution to the state on the issue of water to derail the Teesta agreement at literally the eleventh hour. She had used the argument that the 50/50 sharing formula was reached by the negotiators of the two sides without her state’s approval. She further argued that she could not agree to such a sharing formula without view from her experts and that she would wait for a report from the 15 member commission she had appointed with Kalyan Rudra as the head before a decision on the sharing formula.
The Commission recently submitted its report but not a complete one because the Central Water Commission did not provide the data of flow of Teesta from Sikkim into PB. As a consequence, MB stated that she would deal with the issue politically although in the incomplete report, the Commission underscored the need to give Bangladesh adequate quantity of water to sustain the river. The LBA that was signed during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister could not be made effective because the BJP declined to support the ratification. Under the agreement, India would need to cede territory for which ratification by 2/3 majority in Parliament is mandatory requirement under the Indian constitution. The Congress led government does not have the 2/3rd majority and hence without the BJP supports, the LBA cannot be ratified. The government sources including the Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid in New Delhi and the Indian Law Minister on a visit to Dhaka in December said that they are hopeful of ratifying the LBA soon but did not provide details. The BJP has not spoken on the matter to sustain the government’s optimism.
The ground reality at the moment does not suggest that much forward movement has been made on the issues to back the Indian Foreign Secretary’s optimism that the deals would be resolved “soonest possible”. Nevertheless the assurance coming from the Indian Foreign Secretary is a step forward from the one the Indians had been giving Bangladesh since , 2011 that the deals would be resolved “soon.” In diplomatic terms, this is a tricky assurance though for although there is a difference between “soon” and “soonest possible”, in the ultimate analysis, “soonest possible” also lacks the element of certainty as “soon”. Given the fact that India has in the past reneged on commitments, “soonest possible” is not much to feel confident. When a journalist asked the Indian Foreign Secretary whether the two deals would be translated into reality during the Prime Minister’s visit to New Delhi, he said that the date of that visit has not yet been finalized that raises question on how much Bangladesh can depend on “soonest possible” as our Prime Minister has said in private that she would not go to New Delhi unless she is certain that the TWSA and LBA would be delivered and the formalities completed before her visit.
Further, on MB agreeing to the Teesta deal, there is more disturbing news. MB has simply said that she would deal with the TWSA politically after the Commission submitted an incomplete report. Politically she is now on a war path with New Delhi on a host of issues and her relation with Manmohon Singh is now on an all time low. Further MB is now playing the communal card in PB politics openly. The Muslims of PB are not particularly well disposed towards Bangladesh and the Teesta on the PB side runs through areas populated by Muslims in large number. These factors do not hint that MB would be more inclined to sign the Teesta deal now than she was in September, 2011. Likewise, on LBA, with elections in India now not very far away, BJP would be more inclined playing the nationalist card against the Congress that would encourage it to object to the LBA because it would mean ceding Indian Territory to Banagladesh. In the exchange of enclaves agreed between the two countries in Dhaka during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, Bangladesh would get more territory than it would cede to India.
Therefore Bangladesh should be careful in building expectations because in the past, Indians have not kept their part of the commitments and promises. The one good thing about the recent moves in jump starting relations that had almost stalled is that the negotiations seem to be directed by the Prime Minister and her Advisers have not been seen in public view this time as they were last time. The other good thing about the recent moves is that these are coming from India. The Bangladesh side should keep in mind that the LBA ratification, Indian assurances notwithstanding, would be a long drawn process. Even if it is tabled in the next session of the Lok Sabha, getting enough votes in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha would take time and Bangladesh should wait before the process ends to believe that the issue has been resolved.
On Teesta, Bangladesh should be cautious and study carefully what the Indians offer. In water sharing agreements, sentences and languages can be crafted in a manner that may hide real intent of either one of the parties if the other does not read it carefully. The Ganges Water Sharing Agreement for instance could have been much better had Bangladesh negotiating team not been divided and there was a national consensus in approaching India and the agreement scrutinized and read carefully. In the Teesta deal also, there has been no effort by the negotiators to keep the nation on board. If the Indians offer a deal this time, this should be discussed in parliament before the government signs it.
There is a nagging suspicion in many minds that the Indians are making the moves to come to the assistance of the Awami League in the forthcoming elections. Nevertheless, one has to welcome the moves because it underscores the fact that the Indians have accepted that they are responsible for derailing the courageous move of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations by failing to deliver on commitments. Our negotiators must keep this in mind while they receive the Indian Foreign Minister next week and the Indian President early next month. They also have a duty to the nation to be transparent so that the public feels that these deals are not being made with political motive and not in the interest of Bangladesh.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and a former Secretary