Dipu Moni’s Delhi trip: Even promises are fading
2nd August, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
Foreign Minister (FM) Dipu Moni was in New Delhi late last month for a three-day visit. She was invited by New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation for delivering a memorial lecture. However that was not the real reason for her Delhi visit. She had gone there to make a last ditch attempt to urge New Delhi to deliver two stalled deals, namely the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement and the ratification of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) for exchange of enclaves and land in adverse possession that, if not delivered, could become embarrassing and damaging electoral issues for the ruling party in the next general elections due in January next.
On arrival in New Delhi, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister told newsmen: “If this bill does not go through and if the Teesta water sharing deal is not signed, they will surely become important issues in the rundown to the parliament elections in my country.” To pursue the two deals, she met the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohon Singh, the BJP Leader in Rajya Sabha Arun Jetley and the Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid. The meeting with Dr. Singh did not provide any result to make the Foreign Minister smile. The Indian PM reiterated New Delhi’s commitment to deliver both the deals without mentioning when it would take place. On the Teesta, he told Dipu Moni that the agreement on the Teesta notwithstanding, water was continuing to flow to Bangladesh unhindered; hardly encouraging news for the AL led Government! On delivery of the two deals, even the promises have become weaker.
If her meeting with Dr Manmohon Singh was disappointing; the one with Arun Jetley, the BJP leader in Rajya Sabha was disheartening. He informed Dipu Moni that his party understood Bangladesh’s position but the BJP has its own policy on the issue based on which it would decide the ratification issue. BJP is strongly opposed to ceding any Indian territory, however small, to another country and the LBA, if ratified will give Bangladesh an additional 10,050.61 acres in the exchange. Further, the BJP believes that 20 million Bangladeshis are illegally staying in India. BJP wants this issue to be resolved before the LBA ratification can be discussed that makes the LBA deal most uncertain. Dipu Moni did not attempt to meet the mercurial Chief Minister of Paschim Bangla, Mamata Banarjee who holds the key to the Teesta deal. She could have easily made a trip to Kolkata to meet her either on way to Delhi or on way back. Dhaka still “trusts” New Delhi to convince Mamata Banarjee to agree to the deal.
What Dipu Moni was informed in New Delhi no doubt was bad news for the AL led government. Upon her return to Dhaka, she has however given a positive spin to her visit, stating that Indian leaders have reiterated their commitments to the deals and informed her that the process to do the needful are under way. She blamed the opposition for failure to bring the deals to the stage the AL led government has. Her spin appeared to be an afterthought to offset media reports in Bangladesh and India that concluded that the visit was futile and unsuccessful. Kolkata’s Ananda Bazar Patrika has quoted the Foreign Minister as saying after her talks with the Indian leaders that “if the deals are not signed, it will be very frustrating.”
Hide and seek
There was a clear hint that she was resigned to fate because she did not hear anything from the Indian leaders to give her hope that New Delhi would deliver the deals for the Awami League to use it the forthcoming general elections. When journalists asked to comment on the outcome of the visit, an official of the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi smartly tried to hide its disappointing outcome. He said that as the Foreign Minister’s visit was not official, there was no expectation at all from her visit.
Unfortunately, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not as smart as the officer at the Bangladesh High Commission. In the build up to the visit, Bangladesh Foreign Ministry officials emphasized that the FM would be meeting the Indian Prime Minister, her Indian counterpart and leaders of the BJP to give the impression that her visit, its unofficial status notwithstanding, was intended to expedite and resolve the Teesta and the LBA deals. People were led to believe that the deals were moving towards resolution, only awaiting Dipu Moni’s visit for the final push. In fact, Foreign Ministry sources even did not care to tell the media what would be the subject of the Foreign Minister’s memorial lecture so that focus remained on her real intention for undertaking the visit, to expedite the resolution of the two stalled deals.
The other smart thing that the Foreign Ministry didn’t do was ask its High Commission in New Delhi and Deputy High Commission in Kolkata for status reports on whether BJP and Mamata Banarjee had changed their stance on the stalled issues and New Delhi was close to delivery. If it had, it would have saved the Foreign Minister from going to New Delhi on a wild goose chase. A status report from the High Commission would have informed the Foreign Minister that the BJP’s position had hardened with national elections round the corner. A similar status report from the Deputy High Commission in Kolkata would have informed her that Mamata Banerjee’s stance had also hardened. Just before the FM went to New Delhi, Mamata had stated in Kolkata that for her, the interests of northern Paschim Bangla through which the Teesta flows to Bangladesh, was more important than doing Bangladesh a favour. Ominously, people there are against the Teesta deal. Furthermore, her conflict with the Congress over center-province issues had intensified and with focus on the next elections, she was no longer in any mood to do the Congress a favour.
It is a sad reflection on the professional competence of the Foreign Ministry that it did not learn from experience. It had made the same mistake when the Indian Prime Minister visited Dhaka. A routine check at that time with Kolkata’s Bangladesh Deputy High Commission would have informed the AL led government that Mamata Banarjee would not agree to the Teesta deal, something that was public knowledge in Paschim Bangla and New Delhi. She was then in foul mood threatening to bring down the Congress led coalition government by withdrawing the 20 Trinamool members from the Congress led UPA coalition. Further she was contesting for an assembly seat at the time of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit for retaining her position as Chief Minister of Paschim Bangla from a constituency through which the Teesta flows to Bangladesh where the voters were opposed to the Teesta deal.
A similar routine check with the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi would have alerted Dhaka that the additional protocol on the LBA signed during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit was not even worth the value of the paper on which it was signed. Dhaka had welcomed the additional protocol as a significant achievement (after the abrupt withdrawal of the Teesta deal) unaware that the BJP was deadly opposed to ceding Indian territory, however small, to another country. For unexplained reasons New Delhi did not convey this position to Dhaka nor on Mamata Banarjee (in fact New Delhi helped build expectations in Dhaka). That notwithstanding, Dhaka must accept blame for some extremely shoddy diplomatic way of negotiating on national issues that landed the AL led government in deep trouble with the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. Instead of learning from bad experiences, Dhaka has committed the same diplomatic faux pas with the Foreign Minister’s trip; only this time the party needed good news from New Delhi desperately for shoring up its political fortunes that are fast sinking over a host of issues with national elections in Bangladesh approaching fast.
Hasina’s courageous steps
Clearly, the FM’s trip was ill advised and speaks of the poor quality of diplomacy by the Foreign Ministry. Dhaka’s shoddy diplomatic performance notwithstanding, New Delhi must share a lot of the blame for the ruling party’s current predicament in domestic politics over its attempts to improve relations with India. It has treated the AL led Government very badly and not so honestly. Sheikh Hasina took the courageous steps at considerable political risks and delivered to India what have been its dreams from Bangladesh, namely a total guarantee for its security concerns and a trial run of the critical land transit with promise to make it permanent for a paradigm shift of Bangladesh-Indian relations even without asking for reciprocity. Therefore, New Delhi should have cautioned Dhaka at a minimum level of friendly gesture from Bangladesh that it should not expect too much out of the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. This time, New Delhi should have advised the Foreign Minister against the visit.
A recent IBN/CNN/The Hindu election tracker poll has placed Bangladesh as the country Indians trust most with 48% responding in its favour because of the initiatives of the Al led government, ahead of Russia with 46%. Asked to explain, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Dev Mukherjee said that in the last 5 years “Bangladesh has addressed our security concerns very comprehensively whereas in previous regimes, trouble makers were given support.” The former High Commissioner added that there is a sense of guilt in India “because India has not delivered what India should have delivered on and reciprocated, be it on Teesta waters or the land boundary agreement.” It seems that level of competence has not just deteriorated in Bangladesh. A source in the Indian External Affairs Ministry expressed the view that the Foreign Minister’s visit has allowed Dhaka to better understand New Delhi’s current predicament over the failure to deliver the deals!
The FM’s failed trip has put New Delhi on a spot. It has flagged the fact that the failure to deliver the Teesta and LBA to Bangladesh has landed the Awami League at great political desperation underscored by the desperate decision to send the Bangladesh High Commissioner in New Delhi to meet the BJP leader Narendra Modi. Nevertheless, looking into the future, New Delhi should understand that Bangladesh would need encouragement to continue to provide India what it has already given without even being asked , let alone reciprocity. New Delhi should prepare itself so that when there is a new government in Dhaka and another in New Delhi, the two governments could together move ahead in building mutually beneficial bilateral relations where, if there is political will and honesty that Bangladesh has shown and India needs to show, there are huge dividends for both the countries.
There was one important and positive outcome of Dipu Moni’s New Delhi visit though. She was able to get positive response to the idea of sub-regional cooperation for the management of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin Regime. The future of Bangladesh-India relations as well as the development of the sub- region could very well be embedded in this Basin Regime.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador.