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19 March, 2017 11:05:29 AM

India’s stance on Teesta

Mamata Banerjee or no Mamata Banerjee it was the Union Government’s prerogative to go ahead and ink an international treaty
Kumkum Chadha
India’s stance on Teesta

It was the summer of 2012. A decision on a Cabinet note was pending. It was a crucial one that concerned the sharing of India’s waters with Bangladesh. Dr Manmohan Singh was in the Chair. He called a meeting of his Council of Ministers. The issue came up for discussion and there was a kind of a consensus. It veered around the sharing of the Teesta waters with Bangladesh. Sensing the trend, a minister forewarned that Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal Chief Minister should be consulted before the go-ahead on what was a controversial and hyper sensitive issue with the state government. 

The minister who raised the red flag was a member of the Trinamool Congress, an alliance partner and hence part of the Manmohan Singh government. The minister in question had raised the banner of revolt, so to say, on instructions from Mamata Banerjee that without her on board the government cannot move an inch on the issue of sharing the Teesta waters with Bangladesh: “We must” he had then forewarned, “ask Mamata Banerjee before taking any decision”. It was at this point that a senior Congressman and a virtual number 2 in Singh’s Cabinet intervened to tell this minister what was what: “This” he told the young minister, “is an international treaty and not even a comma can be changed”. 
 In other words, Mamata Banerjee or no Mamata Banerjee it was the Union Government’s prerogative to go ahead an ink and international treaty. 
 Technically he was right but there was politics to take care of and as always politics got the better of technicality and international norm. 
 Mamata Banerjee was supporting the Manmohan Singh government and upsetting her meant an imbalance of the power equation: a situation the Manmohan Singh government could ill afford. 
Add to that the fact that a whimsical Banerjee is a handful and can fly off the hook: in other words, she can walk out in a huff, irrespective of the consequences.   
Constraints of domestic politics have always weighed heavy and often taken their toll on international commitments. Two crucial agreements, namely the Land Boundary Agreement and Teesta water sharing, substantiate this. 
It would however not be fair to solely blame Mamata Banerjee for the delay. Her tantrums apart, it was procrastination on the part of the Union Government that contributed to the delay. The intent may be there but it was not backed by substantive action.  
Things changed after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister and he backed intent with action.  He made it clear to his government that if he went to Bangladesh he would not go empty handed. And he did not. He went with the “gift” of the Land Boundary Agreement that marked the culmination of a decades old issue. 
The Land Boundary Agreement involved the exchange of enclaves between the two countries: an issue pending since 1974. Within months of his taking over as India’s Prime Minister Modi ensured that the pending agreement was fulfilled and gave what was then dubbed as his “first present” to Bangladesh and its Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. 
It is well known that of the two pending agreements viz Teesta and Land Boundary, the latter was more difficult to deliver. 
Displacing humans is an emotive issue and has to be handled with tact. Modi took it on himself and his people both in his government and the party to work overtime to make it happen and ensure that India delivers on at least one of its two promises. And he did. That worked wonders for India’s credibility and helped restore faith of a valued neighbor. 
But it also triggered Hope. And rightly so. With Modi at the helm and his coming across as a “swift doer” so to say, the issue of Teesta occupied centrestage. If Modi can deliver the LBA then Teesta, most felt, is, by  comparison,  child’s play. 
To be accurate, Teesta has been on the drawing board for a while and the chances of India delivering on yet another of its promises to Bangladesh are real and high. 
For quite some years, Mamata Banerjee has been cited as the stumbling block and not without reason. She was not keen on the LBA and now wants her pound of flesh for a nod on Teesta. 
Equally the Centre has been reluctant to give her a go-by and sign a treaty over her head. 
The general impression that India, particularly before Modi took over, gave to Bangladesh was that domestic compulsions prevented it from honouring international commitments. 
Simply put it meant we can sign the Treaty but do not want to without Mamata Banerjee on board. Ofcourse till the Trinamool Congress was an alliance partner, Manmohan Singh government’s hands were tied. They had to take her along. Later when she quit the partnership, Manmohan Singh’s government could have moved but it chose not to. It had too much on its hands to worry about commitments that were as good as shelved. 
Modi has rekindled hopes. And therefore the key question bordering Sheikh Hasina’s April visit to India is: will Teesta waters issue be a reality? 
And this is where the 2012 meeting comes handy. Or the diktat from the then minister about not a comma being changed and so on and so forth. In other words, Banerjee or none else are relevant and their concurrence immaterial as far as international treaties go. 
So irrespective of Mamata Banerjee’s happiness quotient, if the Government decides to honour the Teesta agreement there is no stopping it. A state Chief Minister, even though he or she may have a stake in an international agreement, has no role to play unless ofcourse the Centre decides to involve it, woo it and also cajole it. This has been happening in the past and therefore the usual question of will Teesta happen crops up every time there is some activity on the Indo Bangladesh front. 
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s proposed visit to India in April has triggered speculation yet again. And rightly so, the obvious question being does a back-present await her? 
Ofcourse there would be many agreements that will be inked but none would match the status of a back-present befitting a visiting  Prime Minister from his counterpart who is still reveling in the glory of his recent electoral feat. 
Yes, the big wins in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and forming governments in four out of the five states that went to the polls have given Modi a head-start. They have helped boost his image and establish that he is unvanquished and going from strength to strength. Therefore, his writ runs. 
Against this backdrop were he to invoke the 2012 diktat of the Congress minister who now occupies a constitutional post, there is no stopping Teesta from being a reality: maybe harsh for the state of West Bengal but a much awaited and long overdue gift for Bangladesh. 
Between 2012 and 2017 few other things have changed. That Modi is at the helm and is decisive and a doer are old story. 
What is new is that the electoral verdict has made him invincible and he no longer needs to cajole Chief Ministers. Add to that the fact that Mamata Banerjee’s TMC is no longer an alliance partner so while the Centre would want her to go along on Teesta if she doesn’t, the Centre can go ahead and ink the agreement. 
More importantly, in the current scenario the states and its Chief Ministers need Modi more than he does them. So with this upper hand situation that the BJP is in, it is easy for Modi to swing things. As for Mamata Banerjee there was a case for wooing her if the GST was pending but having got around that, the Government needs Mamata Banerjee less than she does them. So while they would not want to push they are free to go ahead and ink what they want to without her pen, as it were.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: ( 


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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