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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mamata's goodwill visit

Mahmood Hasan

WEST Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has just concluded her 3-day visit to Dhaka. She came at the invitation of Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali to pay respect to the martyrs of Ekushey February. During her brief stay in the capital she called on President Abdul Hamid, met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and paid tribute to the martyrs at the Central Shaheed Minar.  
Mamata's visit is considered significant for several reasons. She is the chief minister of West Bengal, with which Bangladesh has close affinity. Bangladeshis know Kolkata much better than Delhi. Relations between Dhaka and Delhi depend to a large extent on relations between Bangladesh and neighbouring Indian states. Most of the cross border issues -- trade, water sharing of common rivers,  smuggling, BSF shooting, insurgency etc -- involve these bordering states. Thus, if they are cooperative many of these issues can be easily resolved between Dhaka and Delhi.
Since 2009, with the coming to power of the Awami League government, relations between Dhaka and Delhi witnessed an upturn. However, two long-delayed issues but extremely important to Bangladesh remained unresolved -- the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and the Treaty on water sharing of Teesta River.
After lengthy and arduous negotiations the LBA was ready for ratification by the Lok Sabha. The Treaty on water sharing was also ready for signing during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka in September 2011. Manmohan Singh's UPA government supported by Trinamool Congress (TMC) was confident that Mamata Banerjee would be on board when concluding the two agreements with Bangladesh.
But Mamata Banerjee, due to internal political expedience, objected to the agreements and refrained from coming to Bangladesh with Manmohan Singh, who was deeply embarrassed. Sheikh Hasina felt let down.
Meanwhile, Narendra Modi's BJP swept into power at the Lok Sabha Elections in 2014, decimating Congress. The change of guards in Delhi was a major setback for Mamata's TMC. BJP immediately focused on how to uproot TMC from West Bengal. It was at that time that Mamata's tune showed signs of change.
Two issues were brought to bear on TMC. First was the scandal related to the Saradha chit fund, in which several top ranking TMC MPs and ministers were alleged to be involved. The second was the bomb blast in Burdwan. BJP accused Mamata of not giving priority to security issues and for giving sanctuary to Islamic fundamentalists.
The changed political scenario has put Mamata under tremendous pressure from BJP and CPI (M). Already there have been defections from TMC to BJP.  The electorate in West Bengal is said to be rejecting the Left Front and opting for BJP as the opposition to TMC. Mamata's political future will face serious challenge at the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2016. She is desperately trying to lift her sagging popularity.
Thus, internal political imperatives have forced Mamata to change her stance on the LBA and the Teesta Treaty. TMC has withdrawn its opposition to the LBA and the related bill is expected to be passed by the Lok Sabha at its next session. Mamata has asked for funds from Delhi for rehabilitating the people of the enclaves.
As for the Teesta Treaty, Mamata has asked Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to have “trust” in her. The Treaty has already been initialed by the two countries, awaiting formal signature. What exactly will be the share for Bangladesh will not be known until the Treaty is made public. Presently, the flow of Teesta in Kurigram in Bangladesh is so low that it is clear that India has been withdrawing massive quantum of water from the upstream of the river.
It is clear that Mamata Banerjee, as chief minister of a state, cannot promise anything on a Central government subject. But she can, and she has in the past, thrown a spanner on a bilateral issue.
Sharing of water of common rivers will remain contentious between Bangladesh and India, primarily because demand for water will keep increasing with each passing year. Experts say that both Bangladesh and India can get the benefits of common rivers if cross border water management projects are undertaken by both.
In a sense Mamata has probably made Delhi's position rather tricky on this issue. Can Prime Minister Narendra Modi backtrack on the promises he made to Sheikh Hasina at Kathmandu during the Saarc summit last November? There are unconfirmed reports that Modi may visit Bangladesh on March 26, 2015 to attend the Independence Day celebrations.
Accompanied by a large cultural delegation, Mamata's visit was in fact a public relations exercise to prop up her image in West Bengal. She has offered to set up a “Bangabandhu Chair” in Kolkata University and construct a “Bangabandhu Bhaban” in Kolkata. She also invited Shiekh Hasina to Kolkata. Mamata also wanted closer cultural ties between West Bengal and Bangladesh. She emphasised the need for more trade between Bangladesh and India.
Mamata visited Dhaka at a time when the Bangladesh polity is deeply fractured. A disunited nation cannot expect benefits from other nations. The current political turmoil in Bangladesh may give Delhi excuses to delay the signing of the two important agreements.  
Thus, though Mamata Banerjee has radiated all the positive vibes before departing from Dhaka, her goodwill may not be translated into reality anytime soon.
The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.

The Daily Star, 23 February 2015