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Millennium Post

Importance of Hillary visit

As far as the US and Western democracies are concerned, fresh winds of change are blowing over West Bengal and Bangladesh, which together form a strategically important segment of South Asia.

The election victory of the nationalist Awami league over the fundamentalist BNP was a step forward for democracy in Bangladesh, for Western observers. Interestingly, the recent triumph of the Trinamool Congress/Congress over the CPI(M)-led Left Front in the Indian State of West Bengal was no less important for Western democracies. Coupled with recent major political changes in Myanmar as well, it is clear that new political and economic opportunities are emerging within a critically significant area of South Asia - an area with enormous natural resources , energy reserves and economic potential, comprising a population of nearly 280 million.

The visit of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to both parts of Bengal is indicative of a political reappraisal of the present situation in this part of the world, which pro-democracy forces naturally find very favourable.

Broadly, the media assumption is that since Clinton visited Kolkata after Dhaka, the US would persuade West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee not to oppose the signing of the Teesta water sharing accord between India and Bangladesh. While no doubt this figured prominently in one-on-one talks between Mrs Clinton and Ms Banerjee, the US was interested in other things as well.

Ms Banerjee loudly rejected suggestions from journalists that Teesta matters were discussed, but too much need not be made of this. Over the years, Ms Banerjee has learnt to manipulate the media. She is well aware that nothing discourages the most avid of newsmen than a harsh, public brush-off.

The present writer knows for a fact that Ms Banerjee has a habit of presenting to newsmen highly edited, slanted versions of her talks with other leaders, especially those on a one-on-one basis. Once she had such a meeting with Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh. She suggested that nothing should be divulged about the talks except harmless generalities, to waiting newsmen. A Khaleda aide later told newsmen informally that the Bangladeshi side was much impressed by Ms Banerjee’s remarkable ability to stonewall the press, when she wanted it.

Going by such an experience, it may be reasonably assumed safely that matters and issues relating to the Teesta water sharing arrangements were discussed between the US Secretary of State and the Chief Minister. Their meeting was not all about the cultural importance Tagore or Vivekananda or the possibility of fresh investments in the IT sector, with respect to the Chief Minister.

Kolkata-based diplomatic circles are aware that relations between Clinton and Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina Wazed have not always been very cordial. US and major European countries welcomed the Awami League’s victory in the national elections. BNP leader Khaleda Zia shot herself in the foot by her ever-growing dependence on Islamic fundamentalists, anti-Indian forces and her growing concessions to Chinese interests in the region. However, critical opinion in the West was also upset over allegations of electoral malpractices against the league.

The ugly face-off between Nobel laureate microfinance guru Mohammad Yunus and Sheikh Hasina spawned fresh tensions between Dhaka and Washington What prompted the unseemly spat was Dr Yunus’s dabbling with politics, which worried both the league and the BNP. His comeuppance from Wazed followed soon, as he was removed from the control of the Grameen Bank he had helped create.

It is common knowledge that Clinton and Wazed spoke on the Yunus issue at the time and their exchange was not cordial. Eventually, the Bangladesh government did not interfere too much with the working of the bank, presumably an outcome of the Hasina-Clinton talk. Clinton, for good measure, has reaffirmed US support for Yunus this time around as well.

At this juncture, it is in Hasina’s own interest to get US support on the Teesta water sharing issue. There is not much time left for the next elections in Bangladesh. The Awami league depends critically on cordial ties with India and expects some major concessions from the bigger neighbour to its west. This is crucial if the Islamic extremists and pro-China forces are to be kept at bay. After years of steady diplomacy, most people are convinced that by giving transit road and river rights to India, Bangladesh would earn at least $5 billion by way of transit fees annually - a figure that may appear more substantial once the country’s gas reserves begin to deplete, between 2015 and 2020.

But the transit treaty was not signed at the last moment on account of Banerjee’s refusal to agree to a 50:50 sharing of the Teesta waters. Therefore, the signing of the transit treaty as well as the river water sharing, are crucial to the future of Indo-Bangladesh relations which in turn is dependent on the good electoral fortunes of the Awami league.

Equally, the West has no choice but to support and persevere with the Awami league in Bangladesh. There is no conceivable logic for it to help restore Khaleda Zia’s party with its known proclivity towards Islamic fundamentalists of all hues, to power. It is largely the activities of these elements that prevented the full flowering of the BISTEC economic grouping, considered so vital for the economic growth and development of South Asia.

Banerjee has good reasons for her obduracy over Teesta waters. West Bengal and Kolkata port have suffered grievously on account of the Farakka water sharing treaty which was endorsed by an over generous Jyoti Basu and the centre. Delhi had promised regular dredging and other measures for the Ganga river to keep the Kolkata port alive. But little action was taken, leading to much loss in terms of the operation and earnings of the once premier port, which affected the state’s economy. No wonder she would not allow a repeat of the same. By giving away too much again, north Bengal could well turn into a desert in a few years.

With the US playing persuasive middleman, it would not be surprising to see Banerjee agreeing to sign the treaty, with Bangladesh probably getting between 35 to 40% of the supply, neither 50% as demanded by Dhaka, nor 25 per cent as suggested by Kolkata - with the proviso that both countries monitor the ground situation for some years. Diplomatic circles are agog to see what Ms Banerjee or West Bengal gets in return. The lady certainly knows how to drive a hard bargain — ask Dr Manmohan Singh!!

Normally, the defeat of the Communist-led Left Front after 34 years in West Bengal should not have been a matter of international significance. The reason it was, as far as the West is concerned, is the surprising political longevity of the Left Front. The CPI(M)-led Front was the only instance in the world of a left coalition winning seven political terms consecutively. By and large, most American and European companies and investors have withdrawn from Bengal. There was a flicker of interest as former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee tried to do a Deng Tsiao Ping in West Bengal, inviting investments even from Taiwan and Indonesia. It is another matter that forces within his own party effectively scuppered his efforts, killing themselves in the process!

Now after three decades and more, a non Communist–led government is in place, but its victory has been Pyrrhic. It is critically dependant on central financial assistance for its survival. It has inherited a blighted economic landscape, a scorched earth economy, from the Left Front. The centre has again has its financial as well as constitutional constraints to handle.

For Clinton to announce that the US would treat West Bengal as a 'Business partner', her meeting with local NGOs and promising young students, are encouraging signs that Bengal may figure once more on the US interest map. Strengthening the IT sector would be the easiest way to bring in investments. Significantly, the US has expressed its interest in developing the proposed deep water port off Kolkata, against a backdrop of increasing Chinese naval presence in the Bay of Bengal.
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