Hasina visit crucial for ties
Teesta water sharing issue remains an unresolved for both sides
When Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister on May 26, 2014, he surprised everyone by inviting the heads of state from the neighbouring countries for his swearing-in ceremony sending a signal that he is keen on 'neighbours first' concept. He had also taken it forward by visiting most of the neighbouring countries and improving the neighbourhood ties. After seven and a half years of gap, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be visiting India from April 7-10. For both Hasina and Modi, this will be an important visit to showcase the improved neighbourhood ties.
However, the Teesta water sharing agreement, which is of interest to Hasina may not be on the table although some optimists expect some surprises and there could be something on water security. If resolved, this will strengthen the hands of Hasina as the opposition has been critical of her inability to get the Treaty signed since September 2011 when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made his visit to Dhaka. Teesta was almost clinched then, but it was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who had backed out at the last minute embarrassing Singh. Despite the disappointment, in Dhaka's official circles, Singh's visit had been described as a landmark visit. Modi's visit in 2015 has taken the ties forward.
Dhaka has repeatedly been raising the Teesta issue in almost all discussions with New Delhi, concerned as a lower riparian country. India has been consistently responding that it would be signed after 'internal discussions' with Mamata. Although Article 253 of the Constitution gives the Centre the power to conclude any treaty, it cannot ignore the concerns of the people of the state. Mamata wants to protect the interests of five districts in North Bengal which would be affected if more water were released to Bangladesh and there is no meeting point so far. This is the crux of the issue.
Earlier, Mamata had softened her stand and supported the endorsement of the Land Boundary Agreement in Parliament in 2015, which could not be signed for 41 years and also accompanied Modi to Dhaka. Persuaded by the Centre, she also visited Bangladesh where Hasina gave her a royal welcome in February 2015. Mamata promised them to be supportive, but since her return, Mamata has not mentioned any advance in Teesta negotiations.
Why is Mamata blocking the Teesta pact? She has domestic compulsions, and cannot go against the interests of her state. She holds that the flow of the river is weakened when it reaches West Bengal because of the hydropower projects constructed in Sikkim and suggested a trilateral meeting between West Bengal, Sikkim, and New Delhi.
Mamata is annoyed about the way the Modi government is dealing with the Narada and Sarada scams involving her party leaders and arresting them. Also, she needs a massive financial package from the Centre, as West Bengal debt burden has piled up to a huge amount. Moreover, Mamata is worried about the growing influence of the BJP in her backyard. She has hardened her stand. Recently she told a TV channel "But I can only say I have not been consulted so far. I don't have any clue about the discussions. I cannot put a seal of approval on the treaty at the cost of my state's interest." Mamata and the other northeastern Chief Ministers may attend the banquet hosted by President Pranab Mukherji in honour of Hasina, who will be the guest at Rashtrapati Bhavan as a special gesture.
The Indo-Bangladesh cooperation has been enhanced in several fields including energy and bilateral trade as India accorded duty-free benefits to Bangladesh on a large number of items. Energy security is important as India is not only assisting Bangladesh in producing electricity, but also exporting 600 megawatts of electricity and has promised to export more if Dhaka wants. The Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) agreement has resolved the enclave problem.
From the Dhaka side, Hasina has been cooperating in curbing the activities of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence in smuggling fake Indian currency notes, drug trafficking, and infiltration of terrorists. She has also been supportive of India in isolating Pakistan in the SAARC forum by refusing to attend the summit last November. Now it is payback time for Delhi.
The Narendra Modi government is giving special importance to this visit for these reasons. The ground has already been prepared by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar who had paid a two-day visit in February this year to chalk out the areas of bilateral cooperation, including border security, power, energy, shipping and railways. Most important of all, India is to offer $500 million line of credit for Bangladesh, which is the highest ever to any country.
Given Dhaka's strategic importance, India and Bangladesh are expected to sign two agreements and seven Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) related to defence issues during Hasina's upcoming visit.
India is also concerned about the growing Chinese influence in Bangladesh. During the recent visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to Bangladesh, China has entered into a strategic partnership agreement with Dhaka and has also promised $40 billion investment. Recently it sold two submarines. India has to compete with China by equally showing favours to Bangladesh. Hasina is most interested in Teesta agreement, and that is the big issue before the Indian Prime Minister.
(Views are strictly personal.)