Syed Maqsud Jamil
Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of Paschimbanga (formerly West Bengal), has become the epicentre of the disappointment putting the relationship between our two culturally linked lands under a cloud. It is quite baffling considering the camaraderie between the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the Chief Minister of Paschimbanga since both came to power. They congratulated each other personally, by calling up to offer felicitations on their victories.
Unlike the two Begums in Bangladeshi politics, it is a safe bet to say that personal goodwill between the two is in order. But the deadlock on resolving issues appears to have developed a firmer hold. Even the Bangladesh foreign minister's detour of a visit went like window shopping. After backing out from sharing Teesta River water, Mamata's opposition to exchanging enclaves has come as a shock.
Mamata Bannerjee – sending the wrong signal? Photo: Courtesy
Mamata is a dour lady! She has been in a fiercely combative field of politics since her youth. She was up against the juggernaut of a party like CPM. It would have been a daunting task to find a foothold in a region dominated by a titan like Jyoti Basu. Mamata learnt the hard bruising way. She was even assaulted by the boorish cadres of CPM. It was a baptism in fire and storm. She became an implacable and hardnosed political operative in the wear and tear of Indian politics. It is apparent that she is wedded to her political goals. Her simple and populist ways has made her a popular political icon, a lady in a white cotton sari and sandals. She is not the kind to drift away from her populist agenda of being the saviour of Paschimbanga. She led the protest against atrocities in Nandigram and led the campaign against land acquisition in Singur for Tata's Nano motor car plant. Recently, she warned the central government against taking steps detrimental to the interest of her Paschimbanga.
Mamata sunned under the All India Congress for as long as it suited her purpose to thrive. Her national profile was built there as the state minister for youth, sports, women and child development. And when the time came she cloned away from Congress to form her Trinamool Congress TMC in 1997. Political correctness is not her forté and she allied herself with Bharatiya Janata Party BJP in 1999. Her fortune soared and she became the central Railway minister. When the wind started blowing in Congress's favour, Mamata and her Trinamool returned to it. She was awarded the office of Railway minister.
Recently however, the Trinamool-Congress alliance has come under stress. The Trinamool chief is now taking swipes against Congress on whether or not it is to remain an ally in the state government. Mamata's blunt remarks on the Manipur election have not been in favour of Congress. Interestingly, her opposition to exchanging enclaves is similar to that of BJP. Considering BJP's renewed stand on building Ram Mandir, the Paschimbanga Chief Minister's stand may be misunderstood. In addition to prohibitive tariffs, the prospect of importing electricity from India by Bangladesh has run into another snag – that of the state government's lack of interest in extending infrastructural support to the transmission part of the deal. To many observers, the Trinamool chief's stance relating to issues with Bangladesh, its soul mate of a neighbour, is looking increasingly hawkish. For its part, the Bangladesh government is discreetly close-lipped on Paschimbanga's change from a traditional mate to a stingy neighbour. To add to the strain, most of the border killings and atrocities are taking place on Opar Bangla side of the border. This is going to be a major foreign policy headache for Bangladesh.
It is only natural that Matama's constituency would be her first consideration. Indeed it is and perhaps a bit too much! Something is lurking in her mind and at the moment it is inscrutable. Every region under a federal structure has its own legitimate interest, which by association is also a concern of the federal union. The issues that involve Bangladesh and Paschimbanga as contiguous regions are a matter for the two sovereign states to attend together.
In spite of the deep cultural ties between Bangladesh and Paschimbanga, the principal negotiating partners on the issues are the governments of India and Bangladesh. Paschimbanga remains a secondary player, which Bangladesh cannot help. The hype of Epar Bangla Opar Bangla has little bearing on it. It is the arcane field of the bureaucrats of India's South Bloc. The Bangladesh government has been quite diligent in paying proper courtesies to the Chief Minister. This change of heart on the part of Trinamool chief is troubling but not worrying for Bangladesh. However, there is no denying that the fizz no longer marks the ties between Bangladesh and Paschimbanga state government.
Water has long been an issue in this region. India resolved its river water-sharing issue with Pakistan long ago in 1960, with Prime Minister Nehru visiting Karachi to sign a water treaty. But the issue in this region is taking much longer. This is a matter of obvious concern for Bangladesh, with almost all its rivers originating from India. In the absence of a comprehensive water-sharing treaty, the withdrawal of water by upper riparian India has made Bangladesh, a deltaic region, into a water deficient country. The present Bangladesh government in its earlier term signed the Ganges River water-sharing treaty with India. It has not helped the matter much. The Padma River, in its lean period, is a disappointing sight. As for Teesta, there was much hope for a 50:50 equitable sharing treaty during the Indian Prime Minister's visit to Bangladesh, until the Paschimbanga Chief Minister backed out in the last moment. It is rumoured that the state government has a water project somewhere in Jalpaiguri. This has the Teesta Barrage project, in lower riparian Bangladesh, understandably threatened with decreasing water flow from upstream.
Equitable sharing is a rational solution among neighbours with close ties. But it has not received importance with the Trinamool chief. What could possibly be her rational behind opposing the exchange of enclaves? The number game or the population ratio! It would have ended the age-old plight of enclave dwellers on both sides of the border. As for extending infrastructure support for electricity, it is a deal of benefit for both lands. It may not take place at all if there is no agreement on tariff.
Mamata's unhelpful stance has the likelihood of sending a signal that there has been a change of heart. It would be against the legacy that emerged from the Liberation War of 1971. There is a lofty example from Bangladesh when Bangabandhu signed the Indira-Mujib treaty in 1974 and handed over the South Berubari union to India in exchange for the lease of the Tin Bigha corridor. Bangabandhu did not stall but India took almost forty years to implement the deal. The disappointment could be passed on to the bigger neighbour. But for Teesta and the exchange of enclaves, it is not the big neighbour, but rather the Chief Minister, and by association the Trinamool government, that stand in the way. Therein lies the rub. For in that hype of Epar Bangla Opar Bangla, the reality may sink in the heart that used to melt.