Forty-eight hours ahead of the proposed summit level talks between Bangladesh and India in Delhi, prospects for a new, wide-ranging comprehensive bilateral agreement have never looked brighter.
After prolonged discussions and intense preparations involving diplomats, politicians and experts during the last few weeks in Dhaka and Delhi, there is now every possibility of the countries reaching an agreement on the contentious Teesta water sharing issue.
However, officials on both sides remain tight-lipped, well aware that no agreement is ever finalised until the last signature has been recorded. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s dramatic refusal at the last minute to endorse the Teesta water-sharing proposal during the UPA regime is a prickly reminder of this.
The question arises, how has the situation between the two countries changed?
First, the initial indications from all sides – Bangladesh, India and on Teesta, West Bengal – in the preliminary run to the April 7 to April 10 talks have been highly positive so far. True, Mamata raised her anti-Delhi campaign pitch higher, alleging that she and Bengal were being ignored and that she would not accept any proposal that would harm her state, despite all her warmth towards Bangladesh.
But now she has agreed to attend the proceedings, and will reach Delhi tomorrow night. Incidentally Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will also reach the Indian capital the same night.
Having burnt their fingers once before, the now BJP-led central government is leaving nothing to chance in its bid to conclude a successful agreement with India’s eastern neighbour.
President Pranab Mukherjee, who is on familiar “tui” terms with Mamata, has sent her an invitation letter for the ceremonial dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan on April 8, to honour the visiting Bangladeshi prime minister. Her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi will attend, and Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj is also expected to be present.
Pranab Mukherjee, not content with having sent off the invitation, has also followed up by speaking to Mamata Banerjee on the phone. Mamata accepted the invitation.
Kolkata-based analysts said Pranab Mukherjee had left no options for the Bengal chief minister, other than an acceptance. He has rendered Mamata’s earlier allegations about not being kept in the loop on Indo-Bangla talks ineffective.
There are now two very positive indicators that the proposed Indo-Bangla dialogue would make substantial progress. First Sheikh Hasina will visit Delhi, having cancelled a trip earlier following some negative signs. Second, Mamata Banerjee, who cried off dramatically from attending similar talks in Dhaka on Teesta, has also agreed to visit Delhi. This could not have happened unless both leaders were convinced that working out an accord over the Teesta waters would be possible.
Mamata would meet Modi and Hasina on a one-on-one basis as well, official sources said.
Observers say that Mamata is also attending the Delhi parleys not least because her position vis-à-vis the centre has weakened considerably of late, compared to the dominance she enjoyed with the Congress (I)-led UPA ministry earlier. The multi-crore rupees Sarada chit fund and Narada scams where many senior leaders of her Trinamool Congress (TMC) party are known to be involved, have taken their toll.
During her tenure, Bengal’s indebtedness to the centre has risen from Rs190,000 crore to around Rs320,000 crore. Her government has failed to meet the DA and other requirements for its large work force for some time and is critically dependant on the centre for sustaining public welfare schemes.
As for the centre, it has refused to write off or to announce a moratorium for the state. With the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning an absolute majority in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the TMC’s victory in 34 out of 42 seats in Bengal became meaningless. “The TMC’s bargaining power vis-à-vis the centre is at an all time low,” says CPI leader Manju Majumdar.
Interestingly, no other party in Bengal, from the BJP to the CPI, the CPI(M), the Cong(I) or others, opposed the Teesta water-sharing deal with Bangladesh. “The rights of a lower riparian country must be honoured and many of us had homes in Bangladesh” is a common sentiment.
CPI(M) leader Mohammad Salim adds: “They accuse a section of Bangladeshis of crossing over into India illegally. Why don’t they [TMC] understand that if Bangladesh gets little water in its north, chances of such illegal crossings will increase. Will the TMC accept the responsibility ?”
In contrast, Prime Minister Modi, according to Delhi-based BJP leaders, ignoring his uneasiness in dealing with Mamata, has left it to President Pranab Mukherjee to bring her and Sheikh Hasina closer on the Teesta issue. He has excellent relations with the Bangladeshi prime minister.
The next few days would put Pranab Mukherjee’s powers of persuasion to a stiff test, but the Indian president is past master at this role, having carried out such exercises for the UPA in the past.
As stated in these columns before, the centre now holds the whip hand vis-à-vis the TMC. “If push comes to shove, the centre will go public by releasing the Kalyan Rudra Expert committee report on the Teesta waters, which Mamata Banerjee never did, because it did not endorse her alarmist scenarios about North Bengal’s economy. Besides, the Union Ministry of Water Resources headed by Uma Bharati, also has prepared a special report on the possible impact of Teesta water sharing on Bengal. If necessary, they will show Mamata these details. If she still does not agree, the BJP can go ahead and conclude a treaty with Dhaka, with or without her on board,” says a Bengal-based BJP leader.
Most Kolkata-based leaders do not feel the situation would worsen to that level, as they keep their fingers crossed along with the people of both countries.