Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina, before the end of her trip to India, and also when she returned to Dhaka, told the media rather ironically, “I wanted Teesta’s water, but didi [Mamata Banerjee] offered extra electricity instead.”
This statement indicated that India’s domestic political dynamics were involved in the issue. Sheikh Hasina’s remark that she “got something, at least”, reeked of regret, at the remorse of being given the short shrift.
Before leaving New Delhi, Hasina told Bangladeshi industrialists and businessmen who were members of her entourage, “Now it is for you to say if I am returning home with something or returning home after selling out the country.”
She said this apparently in response to her critics and rivals, but it essentially turned to be a foreshadow that the defence deals signed during her visit and the failure to sign the Teesta sharing deal were going to be apples of discord in Bangladesh’s internal politics.
Things shouldn’t have been so. Bangladesh-India relations are not merely centred on Teesta. There have been shining examples of mutual cooperation in all areas over the last eight or nine years. Mutual trust, dependence, and faith in each other are there as well.
Yet the internal politics of Bangladesh and the common psyche are not ready to accept anything other than Teesta. Nothing has grown to be an alternative to Teesta to them [Bangladeshis]. As the lower riparian country, water, and of course that is of Teesta, has popped up in the relations of Bangladesh and India and has cast a long shadow. Teesta has turned out to be a strange symbol.
Time is running out fast. The next parliamentary elections in Bangladesh should be held by the next year. That suggests Hasina’s party has only one and a half years in hand. The Bangladesh Awami League (AL) will undoubtedly be able to gather some additional wind in its sails if Indian prime minister Narendra Modi signs the Teesta deal to keep his promise within this time. Otherwise, the ruling party will have to face the music for its failure.
It is not certain whether Modi will be successful in keeping his promise, but it is clear that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s stance on Teesta is getting sterner day by day. She is repeatedly opposing the sharing of Teesta waters with Bangladesh. At the same time, she is widening her political gap with ruling BJP.
Mamata, however, showed Modi the path for signing the Teesta deal bypassing her. In a television chat show, Mamata dropped such a hint. Modi, however, showed no interest to tread that path so far.
The Indian constitution has also clearly stated this. It is the central government which is entrusted with the full authority to sign any international deal in the interests of the country, even though the river waters are enlisted in the state. The role of the state is insignificant here.
Now the question is, why is Modi not signing the deal in mutual interests then?
Modi is not doing so for two reasons. The first reason is the framework of a united state. In a united state, the cooperation between the central government and the provincial government is a big issue. Otherwise, a separatist mindset may emerge.
The second reason is the internal politics of India. West Bengal is prominent among the states to which the eyes of BJP have been glued in order to win the 2019 general elections.
If Modi signs the Teesta deal forcibly, Mamata would spearhead an anti-BJP campaign in the run up to the elections and the primary slogan of the campaign would be that BJP does not think of West Bengal’s interests.
It is needless to say Bangladesh’s friendship is required, but staying in power is more important than that.
‘South Bloc’ also understands well how much Sheikh Hasina’s stay in power in Bangladesh is meaningful and a necessity for India.
Delhi knows this well how fatal it could be in future and how old challenges can bounce back if Sheikh Hasina does not stay in power.
It is understandable how much risk it would be for India if it will have to face volatility in the eastern border like that in the western border. It is also known to all that the main opposition party in Bangladesh will not commit the mistake in the next general elections the way it did in the past election.
Despite huge developments, infighting has worried the ruling Awami League party. Against this backdrop, the Teesta could turn out to be the magic wand for Awami League. And it is not as if Modi is unaware of this.
It is true that no active efforts to resolve the Teesta problem were seen in any of the visits that Modi made to Bangladesh since 2011. And that is why, Bangladesh’s disappointment and dismay is not misplaced. Sheikh Hasina has never tried to hide the fact that she is an Indian friend like her father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
So, Delhi will have to give a thought whether it will take the trouble of walking the extra mile in the interests of true friendship. Bear in mind, time is running out fast.
* The article originally written in Bangla has been rewritten in English by Abu Taib Ahmed.