Friday, August 30, 2013

INDIA FAILS ON LBA, TEESTA DEALS Bangladesh in grave political cris

Weekly Holiday
Friday, 30th August, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has been trying his best to convince the BJP and Mamata Banarjee to come on board to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and the latter also to agree to the Teesta deal. His sincerity in this regard is above question. However, there is reason to worry whether he sometimes goes out of line to give a sense of optimism to Bangladesh where the ground reality is negative. During his visit to Dhaka in February, he had said that both the Teesta deal and ratification of LBA would be delivered to Bangladesh without further delay.

Recently, he made light of news that the BJP and Trinamool had hardened their respective stands on the LBA. He stated that the Congress led government would raise the LBA ratification bill in Rajya Sabha and insisted that the BJP/Trinamool would support it. At one point, he made a comment that sounded weird because it was difficult to understand whether he was trying to encourage Bangladesh or making light of its concerns. He said the LBA became a done deal like a marriage as soon as the Indian Prime Minister inked the additional protocol to the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement when he visited Dhaka two years ago and the ratification process was just a formality like the photo session part of that marriage!

When news reached Dhaka, Salman Khurshid’s assurance notwithstanding, that the ratification bill had not been placed before Rajya Sabha, journalists turned to the Prime Minister’s International Affairs Adviser Gowhar Rizvi for comments. He echoed Salman Khurshid’s description of the LBA as a marriage to allay concerns and stated that the ratification would inevitably follow like the photo session of a marriage! In their weird way of explaining the failure of the Congress led government to place the ratification bill, both missed or deliberately ignored a historical fact.

Poor diplomacy

In 1974, Bangladesh-India signed the Indira-Mujib Agreement. Under the agreement, Bangladesh transferred South Berubari immediately afterwards. In return, India was supposed to hand over sovereignty of Teen Bigha corridor to Bangladesh for passage to the Bangladeshi enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota. India never kept its commitment to an Agreement that Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed for their respective countries. In 2011, 37 years after the Agreement was signed, India allowed Bangladesh permission to use the corridor round the clock but did not transfer sovereignty to Bangladesh.

In fact, Bangladesh negotiators, for reasons unknown, had shown the tendency of the International Affairs Adviser all along while negotiating with India. They followed India blindly and believed in Indian promises without checking against ground realities. Unbelievably, they failed to realize what hugely important cards they bargained away to India on just promises. Muchkund Dubey, Dev Mukherjee, Veena Sikri and Rajeen Mitter, all former Indian High Commissioners to Bangladesh recently but belatedly criticised New Delhi for its failure to deliver the Teesta and LBA deals to Bangladesh after Sheikh Hasina had answered India’s dreams by providing it security support and trial run of the land transit for which the Awami League has been pushed to a undesirable political predicament with national elections only months away.

In desperation, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister made an ill-advised trip to New Delhi last month and the Bangladesh High Commissioner to India travelled to Ahmedabad to call on Narenda Modi. The moves failed and reflected the na├»ve way in which Bangladesh conducted negotiations with India. Foreign Policy Adviser Gowhar Rizvi’s choice to use Salman Khurshid’s description of the LBA to explain why the LBA bill was not raised in Rajya Sabha was another example of the poor quality of diplomacy. People wanted to be told unequivocally when the deals would be delivered. They did not expect the Adviser to pick the weird comment of the Indian Foreign Minister to make light of their concerns.

Delhi’s weird concern

New Delhi, aware that its failure to deliver the two deals had placed a friendly government in dire political straits, showed concerns over it in recent months. It held discussions with the BJP/Trinamool as well as published papers to convince the people that no harm would come to any parties in India if it delivered the deals. Salman Khurshid’s description of the LBA as a done marriage was also a sign of that concern, albeit a weird one. In another sign of that concern/pressure, the Indian External Affairs Ministry released a letter to the media that was written by Mamata Banarjee before the visit of the Indian Foreign Minister to Dhaka in which she had clearly given West Bengal’s clearance to both the deals to put the mercurial Chief Minister on a spot. 

Unfortunately, the release of the letter had the opposite result from what the Indian MEA expected. The Chief Minister went on a rage and more or less ended any hope of the two deals receiving her clearance anytime soon. On the LBA, she said unequivocally: “…our state of West Bengal will get only 7,000 acres of land but will have to recede 17,000 acres of land to Bangladesh. This cannot be accepted without taking into confidence and consent of the local people who live in the transferable areas.” Mamata Banarjee was equally negative on the Teesta deal over which she accused New Delhi of insincerity. She also said that at the draft stage of the deal, New Delhi “had said something but proposed something totally different in the final stage.”

BJP’s Sushma Swaraj was equally dismissive of agreeing to the LBA after New Delhi had failed to raise the LBA ratification bill as Salman Khurshid had promised. She said: “On the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement, I wish to clarify that the BJP is completely against it.” In what has put the Congress led Government on a spot, the BJP accused it of negotiating with Bangladesh in bad faith as well as failing to take on board what it considered the “emotions” of people to be affected by the land exchange deal. It was again Sushma Swaraj who exploded the bombshells on New Delhi and Dhaka. She said emphatically that the BJP’s position on the LBA was not a new one and that it had been opposing the Congress led Government’s attempt to ratify the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement and the additional protocol signed in September 2011 all the time. She accused the Congress led government for “inking” the additional protocol “casually” that raised serious questions on the Indian Foreign Minister’s description of the LBA as good as a marriage deal!

India’s bad faith

The latest statements of BJP and Mamata Banarjee established that the Teesta and the LBA deals never had any realistic chances of being delivered to Bangladesh, a fact about which New Delhi was well aware all the time. These statements together with what the former Indian High Commissioners have recently stated in the media have established that for the failure to achieve the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for which Sheikh Hasina had taken great political risks was not entirely due to poor negotiating skills of the Bangladesh negotiating. The Indians negotiated in bad faith that contributed equally if not more to why Bangladesh-India relations have altered. Salman Khurshid’s latest reference to the LBA being as good as a marriage deal should now haunt New Delhi if it reflects on its dealings with Bangladesh honestly. 

Indians too, have reacted sharply to the way New Delhi treated Bangladesh. In a recent survey conducted by IBN/CNN/The Hindu, Bangladesh came on top as the country Indians trusted most, ahead of even Russia! Analysts explained this as the result of guilt among Indians over New Delhi’s failure to be fair to Bangladesh. The 7 northeastern states where the prospect of land transit leading to regional connectivity had raised great hopes felt the same way as those who were interviewed for the IBN/CNN/The Hindu poll. More importantly, the failure convinced most Bangladeshis that India could not be trusted.

Nevertheless, New Delhi and the parties that objected to the LBA and Teesta deals know too well how important Bangladesh’s sustainable cooperation is for India’s critical security concerns and for regularizing the land transit deal that Bangladesh had given on a trial basis. At the same time, on the Bangladesh side, it is now accepted on a bipartisan basis that if relations were to be built on reciprocal basis, Bangladesh would have the genuine prospects of becoming the regional connectivity hub within which the outstanding bilateral problems related to water, trade and land boundary would be peacefully resolved. Therefore, although the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina had envisioned have stalled for which both sides contributed, the Bangladesh-India negotiations over the last five years have established the rich potentials of friendly relations.

Delhi can still help

Unfortunately, there are now no cards in the hands of the AL led government to influence negotiations over the Teesta/LBA deals. New Delhi has also exhausted its cards. There are little prospects of anything happening from the Indian side that must make the next move to take relations forward. Therefore realistically, both sides must now wait till new governments come to power in Dhaka and New Delhi through elections in the respective countries. However, the elections in Bangladesh have become uncertain that should encourage New Delhi to take a fresh look at Bangladesh. The ruling party’s insistence to conduct the next general elections under an interim government headed by Sheik Hasina is pushing the country towards what many believe a civil war. It would be in India’s interest to ensure that this would not happen because if Bangladesh were to face a civil war, India’s security concerns would become a nightmare where Bangladesh could very well become what Condoleezza Rice had predicted in New Delhi in 2005; the “next Afghanistan.”

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has aggregated the international concern over Bangladesh. He made phone calls recently to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to urge talks between them for free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” general elections. The SG’s concerns notwithstanding, his initiative has little chance of succeeding in the current mood of the ruling party. However if the Congress led government of India intervened with the Awami League, with which, its failures to deliver the deals notwithstanding, it still has close contacts, the prospect of SG’s initiative succeeding would enhance dramatically. In fact, India is the only country at present that can encourage the ruling Awami League to see the wisdom of holding free, fair, transparent and inclusive national elections.

It is in India’s interest that it should encourage the ruling Awami League to ensure that the BNP was not kept out of the next national elections by putting its weight behind the UNSG’s initiative. It is also in AL’s interest because holding “inclusive” general elections would give it the chance of going to the voters with its performance and a chance to win. The AL chances of returning and remaining in power in national elections without the BNP would be a fantasy; damage the credibility of the party, push the country towards civil war and leave it holding the BAKSAL flag once again. The people of Bangladesh would also hold India responsible if the country exploded over the elections for contributing its share in that, God forbid, predicament.

[The writer is a retired career Ambassador]

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