Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee pulled out of the trip at the eleventh hour, saying the Teesta water-sharing pact will give far more water to Bangladesh than she’d agreed to. This may placate Mamata. But what about sensitivities across the border?
At a time India is trying to take ties with its eastern neighbor to the next level, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s high-profile Bangladesh visit could’ve done without this unseemly controversy. Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee pulled out of the trip at the eleventh hour, saying the Teesta water-sharing pact will give far more water to Bangladesh than she’d agreed to. This, she felt, would hurt north Bengal’s interests. Not wanting to alienate an important ally like the Trinamool with its 19 MPs, the government backtracked. It said India would ink the deal only if accepted by all stakeholders. This may placate Mamata. But what about sensitivities across the border?
The spat has derailed — at least for now — a crucial treaty that was to be the centerpiece of Singh’s visit. If signed, it has the potential to boost connectivity and prosperity in the region besides putting a long-standing bilateral issue to rest. Little wonder the Sheikh Hasina dispensation has urged Singh to reassure Bangladeshis that the delay is temporary. Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mizarul Kayes has even sought an explanation for the postponement from the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka. The last-minute hitch can’t but discomfit Sheikh Hasina, who needs substantial takeaways from Bangladesh’s engagement with India to place before a combative opposition.
Given the economic and strategic significance of Singh’s trip, both the UPA government and the Trinamool should have tried to avoid a public rift with the potential for causing diplomatic ripples. Many key issues are on the discussion table: transit access to the northeast, facilitation of easy movement of goods and people, trade integration and investment flows. By wrangling over a few cusecs of water, Mamata plays into the hands of those, who will question her ability to grasp the big picture: diplomacy geared to serving national interest. But that doesn’t absolve the Center of its evidently poor communications strategy.
Mamata’s preoccupation with her home turf isn’t any different from that of other Chief Ministers, who prioritize state concerns as well. Given India’s federal nature, pacts relating to sharing of resources need broad consensus from all players affected. If Mamata complains she wasn’t kept privy to the Teesta treaty’s final shape, the Center should explain why. The fracas reflects particularly badly on the Congress, which has had a doubtful record in dealing with states in a federal polity and smaller alliance partners. Both sides must now sort out differences away from the flashlights, so that the treaty can be signed as soon as possible. Given her state’s strategic location, Mamata can, in fact, turn engagement with Bangladesh to Bengal’s advantage by backing the Center’s push for economic and cultural cooperation in the region.
Courtesy: The Times of India