Saturday, September 17, 2011

Trade-Off Between Bengal, North-east Not Viable

The agricultural economy of north Bengal cannot be undermined for the sake of a ‘transit’ treaty whose benefits are in the abstract given the woeful condition of infrastructure in the north-eastern region. It is time the diplomacy of Manmohan got real.

Bangladesh cannot be faulted for putting on hold the Feni River agreement and the much awaited transit treaty. The transit treaty not only held out huge revenue potential for Bangladesh but would have also yielded to north-eastern India its dream of access to a port. The importance of this link for the region’s economic turnaround cannot be overstated. But Singh threw that opportunity away by imagining that a pack of IFS officers would “manage” Mamata.

A problem between Delhi and Kolkata could leave Dhaka sneezing politically. Now the anti-Hasina BNP would take advantage of the failed treaty to whip up anti-India sentiments. An advantage for the Bangaldesh Nationalist Party (BNP), with its known links with radical Islam, is a clear headache for India.

The Awami League is known to be an old ally of India. Bangladesh’s birth was midwifed by India. The BNP is known to whip up old suspicions harboured by remnants of the pro-Pakistan section of Bangladesh society. When in the Opposition in Bangladesh’s never-ending revolving door politics, the BNP tends to follow Delhi-Dhaka diplomacy with a telescope and never loses an opportunity to cry ‘traitor’ in the direction of the Awami League government for perceived “sellout” to India.

In the 1990s, the Awami League appeared to pulled off a masterstroke by clinching the Ganga water agreement with India, whose diplomacy was then punctuated by the “Gujral doctrine”. The “Gujral doctrine” held that India, being the big brother of the region and immensely advantaged by natural and economic resources, should  not think twice before making “small” sacrifices to its neighbours, particularly Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, because through them India stands to gain greater long-term dividends. However, things don’t work like that in South Asia. For a time it did appear that Hasina, who was Prime Minister in the 1996-2001 period, was serious about helping India smash north-eastern insurgency by forcing the Assam,  Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur  militants to close down their shelters in the Chittagong region. But this cooperation was soon sabotaged by pro-BNP elements in the Bangladeshi military establishment. And there was nothing that either India or the Awami-controlled Bangladesh government could do about it.

So, disregarding the interests of millions of people in northern West Bengal in the hope of securing a greater reward in the form of a “transit agreement” is not workable. There is no guaranteeing that the several follow up agreements needed to make a transit agreement work, would automatically fall in place. Moreover, given the present state of north-eastern industry, trade and services, it would take many years, if not decades, for the transit agreement to bring in the expected dividends. The north-east’s biggest problem is not lack of access to a nearby port, but woeful infrastructure. The government of India is vainly expecting a foreign treaty to resolve a home-grown problem whereas it has no substantial plan to improve the state of the north-east’s deficits in power, roadways and communications. But by that time, the entire agricultural sector of northern West Bengal could go for a toss. So the tradeoff may not necessarily have been reasonable.

Shiv Shankar Menon may have great understanding of foreign affairs but he cannot be expected to appreciate the political compulsions of a Chief Minister. The Prime Minister’s claim that Mamata had been “fully briefed” before the final go-ahead was given to draft the treaty has to be taken with a pinch of salt because the West Bengal Chief Minister would never have given her consent at a juncture when she was consolidating her own position.

When it comes to the criticism, Mamata had to face from certain quarters for “spiking” the treaty to exercise her State’s legitimate rights over the waters of the Teesta river, one can’t but appreciate the fact that in international river water treaties the rights of lower riparian states are upheld by preserving the rights of upper riparian states. Hence it is the UPA Government led by Manmohan Singh that should take the blame rather than anyone else. One wonders how Singh went to taste the flavor of Hilsa but ended up with egg on his face.