Begum Hasina’s mission to India has once again hit the reefs along the Teesta, to summon the language of the metaphor. Neither India nor Bangladesh ~ nor for that matter Mamata Banerjee ~ can be particularly delighted with the upshot of her visit after seven years. Seemingly uniform is the degree of disappointment. The thirty kg of hilsa for President Pranab Mukherjee ~ almost a farewell gift, ~ the neighbouring PM's gesture of preparing the delectable smoked variety at the Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchen, and the astonishing linguistic switchover to Hindi in a moment of candour may have lightened the undercurrent of despond over life's essential. Unmistakable, however, is the decidedly jarring note to the grandstanding and the overblown prologue, that was built up both by the MEA ~ or more accurately the PMO ~ and the media.
Paani manga, bijli mila, was Hasina’s high-minded lament at a reception organised by the India Foundation. And then with tongue firmly in cheek: Lekin mujhe nahi pata didimoni kya karega. It was a stark message addressed as much to Narendra Modi as to a Chief Minister dogged in defending her state’s rights. Whether or not diplomatic dealings can come within the ambit of state administration need not detain us here. Suffice it to register that Teesta shall not flow into Bangladesh quite yet and West Bengal’s Chief Minister has had her way for the second time in six years… spanning the stewardship of two Prime Ministers. Though one must hasten to add that this time around, she was less vociferous in her opposition compared to September 2011 when she chose to be a no-show at the Kolkata-Dhaka check-in counter. The Chief Minister’s rigidity ~ then barely five months in office ~ had left Manmohan Singh and his delegation squirming in disbelief.
Aside from the benefits in terms of agriculture in a small and predominantly rural country, it is pretty obvious that both Modi and Hasina appear to be driven by a certain political underpinning. The Bangladesh PM, whose Awami League had won uncontested in 2013, will have to countenance the electoral stakes next year.
The nature of her election has rendered her authority somewhat brittle over the past four years. A breakthrough on Teesta will without question strengthen her defences against Begum Khaleda’s BNP ~ which had boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections ~ and the potentially mortal Islamist forces. Mr Modi’s signal of intent that the Teesta treaty will be concluded during his tenure (till 2019) and that of Hasina (2018) sounds rather presumptuous. Indeed, it sounded almost as an expression of diplomatic courtesy, when there is nothing concrete to show, not to forget the agreements in the economic segment and connectivity. No wonder it has left the man on the street in Dhaka and elsewhere wondering whether the momentous agreement will be signed between now and next year. Is it possible that Mamata will change her mind ahead of the panchayat election in 2018 and the Lok Sabha election in 2019? Is it possible too that Mr Modi will accord short shrift to Miss Banerjee’s reservations and go ahead with the agreement… with scant regard to federal sensitivities? One must give it to the Prime Minister that ahead of the Hasina visit, he has stopped short of presenting Bengal’s head of government with a fait accompli, as did Manmohan Singh who had sent the Foreign Secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, to Writers’ Buildings, there to inform the Chief Minister that Teesta was a done deal. Last weekend’s negotiations have thrown up more questions than they have addressed.
The uncertainty is much too overwhelming for bargaining at the high table, whether in Delhi or Dhaka. Neither Mr Modi nor his counterpart can be unaware of the low draught of the river. And Mamata has been cut to the quick with the Bangladesh delegation turning down her suggestion to share the water of other rivers, pre-eminently Torsa. She does have a point when she contends that any further reduction in the volume of the Teesta is bound to impede agricultural productivity in North Bengal, where Trinamul has supplanted the Congress.
It is the river that now dominates all and everything in the Delhi-Dhaka axis via Bengal. On the surface, the 35 agreements that were concluded between April 7 and 10 are primarily of peripheral import. This ought not to detract from the significance of what has been achieved, however. Chiefly, the defence framework agreement which envisages coordination between the forces of the two countries, notably through joint exercises and patrols, naval exercises. and as partners in training programmes. Deeply critical no less is the economic underpinning, pre-eminently the $ 5 billion line of credit that will take care of a welter of activity ~ primarily ports, roads, and IT. More buses, including one from Kolkata to Dhaka via Khulna, should provide an impetus to connectivity and at affordable rates for the hoi-polloi of the two countries. For all that, it is the journey on foot across a porous border that remains ever so intractable even after the quiet influx began in the late 1970s, in less than a decade after India played midwife in the birth of Bangladesh.
In the context of inter-personal relations, there appears to have been a certain mending of fences between Modi and Mamata (soured since the November 8 demonetisation) and between Hasina and Mamata (tense in the aftermath of the 2011 fiasco). It would be uncharitable to underline, in the manner of the chattering class, that the hilsa crate was a gift for President Pranab Mukherjee… and not Mamata Banerjee. In terms of geopolitics, there has been an upswing in India-Bangladesh relations, with the Awami League at the helm in Dhaka. And it is fervently to be hoped that the equation shall not flounder on the diplomatically choppy waters of the Teesta.
Having said that, the chief regret must be that India in 2017 lacks leaders of the calibre of Jyoti Basu and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Though radically different in their political persuasions, they had acted in concert to facilitate the agreement on Farakka in 1999 ~ in the high noon of the CPI-M in West Bengal and the Bharatiya Janata Party at the national level. To both does Bangladesh owe its share of the Farakkawater. But the Teesta tap remains ever so dry.
The writer is a Senior Editor, The Statesman.