It is becoming increasingly apparent that Bangladesh is set up to become an unfortunate casualty in the war of the Centre and State.
Not only has the West Bengal chief minister consistently blocked talks about a Teesta River deal and also effectively obstructed every proposal Bangladesh has made regarding the Ganges Barrage Project, the Indian Central Government (the Centre), which previously made vague allusions to signing a potential Teesta deal in May, is now on the fence about it as well.
Regardless of the outcome, Bangladesh will most certainly end up being the losers in this political tug-of-war.
The question is: Why?
Mamata Banerjee is either illiterate about the Indian constitution or she is deliberately bypassing it with regards to her stance on the water-sharing deals with Bangladesh.
In an interview with Indian TV channel ABP Ananda on March 23, Mamata said: “I will not speak about the Teesta situation. I have not been officially apprised of the matter, so I will not talk about it. I’ve learnt through the media that the Teesta pact is going to be signed at Dhaka on May 25 following the visit of the Bangladesh prime minister on April 7 to 10. All I can say is, when it comes to protecting the interests of Bengal, I shall not put my seal on any treaty without knowing what it is about.
“I have a good personal and political rapport with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But my state’s interest is my first priority and I won’t betray my people.”
Though she speaks of betraying her constituency, perhaps it is more her desire to oust Prime Minister Narendra Modi that lies at the core of her opposition.
Unlike his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister Modi felt no obligations toward Mamata or her state government. When Mamata opposed Singh’s proposed Teesta deal in 2010-11, the then Indian PM felt bound to accede to her stance as his party did not have the requisite numbers to form the Indian Central Government and he needed the crucial votes of Mamata’s Trinamool Congress.
Modi’s party crossed the required 272 votes in the Lok Sabha polls. With his government in place, he felt no obligations to form allies.
However, Modi now claims he cannot bypass a state in order to allocate water to another country. According to him, this would be doing an injustice to the country’s federalism as mandated by the Indian constitution.
As per the Seventh Schedule of the Indian constitution, water related issues definitely fall within state jurisdiction, however, international treaties are the subjects dealt with by the Centre.
Entry 17, List II of the Seventh Schedule states water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power are state level issues. On the other hand, Entry 14 of List I states that entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing treaties, conventions and agreements with foreign countries are issues for the Centre to handle.
Then again, Article 253 of the Indian Constitution states: “Notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this Chapter (Legislative Relations), Parliament has power to make any law for the whole or any part of the territory of India for implementing any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country or countries or any decision made at any international conference, association or other body.”
Renowned constitutional expert and Tripura High Court advocate Samrat Kar Bhowmik said: “Water is a state subject as per the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution in terms of irrigation, drainage and so on. But as per Article 253 of the Indian Constitution, the Centre reserves unbridled powers for inking an international treaty. The Centre can initiate a prior discussion with the State. But that is merely a matter of convention, and not the law.”
Despite Mamata’s blame game, Modi is apparently, though indirectly, supportive of her stance.
The most likely reason for this may be the forthcoming Indian general elections in 2019. While usurping West Bengal’s 42 parliamentary seats may just be his end goal, Modi also cannot afford to alienate any state, since he will need the support of a maximum number of political parties to push a BJP candidate to Raisina Hills.
If the Centre approves a Teesta deal or the Ganges Barrage Project, Mamata intends to fight, as she made clear during her interview with ABP Ananda.
With West Bengal against him, Modi’s dreams of unseating Mamata and ensconcing his party in Bengal’s throne would remain unrealised.
And this, potentially, is exactly what Mamata wants: a reason to have Bengal stand against Modi. By distancing herself from all water sharing deals, Mamata will be able to keep her voters happy and on her side.
India may sign a legion of memorandums of understanding with Bangladesh during Hasina’s scheduled visit in April, but what is abundantly clear is that the Teesta pact will not be signed any time soon, especially as long as the two political rivals Modi and Mamata continue to lock horns.