Sheikh Hasina's visit to India is viewed with a lot of expectations by both the countries and international observers.

Sheikh Hasina, Narendra Modi, Teesta, paradiplomacy, India-Bangladesh
Source: Narendra Modi/Flickr

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is in Delhi on a four-day state visit. The visit assumes importance due to various reasons. First, the visit comes after two earlier postponements — of December 2016 and February 2017 — for undisclosed reasons. Second, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has strengthened his political grip with his party BJP scoring resounding victories in the recently concluded assembly elections in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh and the neighbouring Uttarakhand. It has also managed to form governments in Goa and Manipur. It has also passed the legal formalities for rolling out the Goods and Services Tax (GST), likely by July this year.

One of the items high on the agenda of Premier Hasina is of course be the Teesta river water dispute. The Teesta originates from the northeastern state of Sikkim in India and traverses through West Bengal before entering Bangladesh. It is the fourth largest trans boundary river in Bangladesh after the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, and according to the 2011 and 2012 data [i] from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the livelihoods of around 21 million Bangladeshis directly or indirectly depend on the Teesta.

Negotiations on this issue between India and Bangladesh can be traced back to the 1950s and 60s when authorities in India and East Pakistan (as it then was) began discussing projects on the river. After Bangladesh came into being in 1971, an Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission was constituted, and an ad-hoc agreement over sharing the Teesta waters was reached in 1983. India was allotted 39% of the water and Bangladesh got 36%, with the remaining 25% being left for future allocation subject to studies. Between 1997 and 2005, the efforts of the Joint Committee of Experts (founded to examine the sharing of the waters) and the Joint Technical Group (JTG) drew a blank. The committee came to the conclusion that the lean season flows of the Teesta could not meet the needs of both India and Bangladesh, “and hence any sharing formula for the lean season flows should be based on shared sacrifices.” [ii]

Negotiations on the Teesta river issue between India and Bangladesh can be traced back to the 1950s and 60s.

In September 2011, India, under the prime ministership of Dr. Manmohan Singh, and Bangladesh came very near to signing an agreement on the issue. Both the countries agreed to share the water equally. However, the deal had to be shelved when Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, opposed it and refused to accompany Manmohan Singh to Dhaka on the grounds that the interests of Bengalis had been overlooked and the draft agreement was materially different from the one that was shown to her. This action of Mamata Banerjee not only made Singh a laughing stock in the global community, but also worked to derail the process of bilateral agreements between the two neighbours. Singh has made it clear that Banerjee was apprised of the draft agreement by then National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon more than a month before the proposed Dhaka visit.

Banerjee’s stance on the Teesta continues unchanged. Addressing the ‘Indo-Bangla cultural Adda’ [iii] in 2015, the West Bengal Chief Minister remarked that “the fencing can never stop love to spread.” She appealed to the “intelligentsia of Bangladesh to trust her over the Teesta water sharing issue and assured them that she and Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina would find out a ‘formula’ that would serve both the nations.”

There is no denying the fact that Banerjee is well intentioned and genuinely concerned about the interest of West Bengal. She has her own arguments regarding centre-state relations, and promptly recounts the West Bengal government’s cooperation in the GST, Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and enclave transfer. However, her rigid stance over Teesta places the concept of paradiplomacy into question. The main cause of worry, in this case, remains the worsening relations between Banerjee’s government in West Bengal and the Modi government at the centre. The Ministry of External Affairs was wise to have postponed the scheduled visit of the Bangladesh PM in December 2016 in view of the West Bengal CM’s shrill opposition to the central government’s demonetisation, announced by Modi more than a month ago.

Now, PM Hasina’s visit is viewed with lot of expectations by both the countries and international observers. Modi had successfully reversed his party’s stand on the enclaves transfer issue and completed the legal formalities while Singh had failed to get the agreement ratified by the parliament. While Modi has strengthened his position, PM Hasina and her ruling Awami League Party are facing severe criticism from the main opposition Bangladesh National Party for being over friendly to India. Therefore, it becomes imperative for Bangladesh, both politically and economically, to reach an early and respectable solution to the Teesta dispute with India.

Besides the Teesta, India and Bangladesh have 53 other river disputes to address and solve. The Teesta water distribution issue assumes more significance at this time as at the behest of PM Modi, the Ministry of External Affairs is now giving more importance to states in foreign policy formulations. The Modi government is fully aware that in the formulation of foreign policy relating to bordering countries, the counsel and cooperation of bordering Indian states is imperative. For this very reason, the relations between India and Bangladesh are bound to affect the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and West Bengal. [iv]

Besides the Teesta, India and Bangladesh have 53 other river disputes to address and solve. The Teesta water distribution issue assumes more significance at this time as at the behest of PM Modi, the Ministry of External Affairs is now giving more importance to states in foreign policy formulations.

Prime Minister Modi’s endorsement for paradiplomacy is understandable. The prosperity of Gujarat during his tenure as its CM was largely achieved through foreign direct investment as a result of successful paradiplomacy. Unfortunately, Indian foreign policy makers did find themselves in a tough spot when, in relation to Indo-Sri Lanka relations (2012-13), PM Manmohan Singh’s government, under pressure from its ally DMK, was forced to vote in favour of the US-sponsored resolution in the UNHRC against its friendly neighbour Sri Lanka. To avoid a similar embarrassment, CM Banerjee’s accusation that the centre did not take her into confidence with regard to the Teesta water pact needs immediate redressal.

A positive settlement of the Teesta dispute will work to further cement Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations. Paradiplomacy suffers a jolt when narrow political interest of states comes as a stumbling block in the smooth conduct of national foreign policy making. When it comes to the Teesta dispute, the interest of West Bengal, although relevant, is subordinate to that of India. It is time CM Banerjee, shunning a regional outlook, acknowledges the same and makes space for a larger understanding of foreign policy.

It is for states to understand that despite their increased role in improving relations with neighbours, foreign policymaking is and remains a highly sensitive issue with the central government and its Ministry of External Affairs. The foreign policy of a country needs a holistic approach that takes into account the prevailing geo-political situations. Perhaps it is apt to quote Prof. C.P. Bhambhri who has said, “India is likely to pay a very heavy price if it makes foreign policy a football game where ‘regionalists’ begin to dictate and decide the direction of policy.” [v]

Bangladesh is one of the most valuable allies and a neighbor to India. Despite PM Modi’s inclination towards and advocacy of paradiplomacy, subnational diplomacy has its limitations. In India’s case, the final call on a nation’s foreign policy has to be taken by the centre keeping the interest of the nation in mind. And chief ministers should cooperate with the centre for the benefit of the nation.


References

[i] Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2011 as quoted in Prasai, Sagar and Mandakini D. Surie. 2013. In Political Economy of the Teesta River Basin. New Delhi: The Asia Foundation

[ii] Water Beyond Borders 2012, “Shared Rivers and Shared Sacrifices: River Teesta,” Discussion No. 1 (unpublished) as cited in Prasai, Sagar and Mandakini D. Surie. 2013. In Political Economy of the Teesta River Basin. New Delhi: The Asia Foundation

[iii] Das, Madhuparna, 21 February 2015, Hasina and I will find Teesta solution, have faith: Mamata Banerjee, Press Trust of India, The Indian Express

[iv] Jacob, Happymon, 2016, Putting the Periphery at the Centre: Indian States Role in Foreign Policy, Carnegie India

[v] Bhambhri, C.P., 2012, Indian Foreign Policy: Foreign or Provincial?, The Economic Times, 31 March

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