AS PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh climbed into Air India One at the end of his visit to Dhaka last week, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her entire Cabinet lined up on the tarmac. There they waited not only until the plane began taxiing for take off, but until it had completely disappeared from view.
Only hours before, the Bangladesh National Party, Ms. Hasina’s major political opposition, had blamed her for not adequately preparing for the Indian prime minister’s two-day visit and described it as a “diplomatic failure.”
The accusation hurt, not only because it was partially true–a breakthrough agreement on sharing of river waters between India and Bangladesh had collapsed at the last minute–but also because Ms. Hasina’s special friendship with India goes back to 1971 when her father, Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, accepted Indira Gandhi’s help in midwifing the new nation of Bangladesh.
Ms. Hasina’s prolonged presence at the airport was “a huge relief,” a senior Indian diplomat said on condition of anonymity, adding that it “gave teeth to her statements that despite everything, both countries would always remain firm friends.”
Ironically, the Indian diplomat admitted, the breakdown in the river water talks did not happen because of differences between Delhi and Dhaka, but between the federal government in Delhi and the West Bengal government in Kolkata.
Dhaka was notified by Delhi only in the late night before Manmohan Singh arrived on the morning of Sept. 6, a Bangladeshi official told India Real Time. The government was so incensed, the official added, that it decided to cancel its offer of allowing Indian goods to transit through the much shorter and cheaper Bangladesh route to India’s northeastern states, the Business Standard newspaper reported.
Even after Bangladesh became independent following the India-Pakistan war in 1971, it did not restore the trade and transit privileges for India that had been shut down by Pakistan after its 1965 war with India.
Meanwhile, a historic land boundary agreement between the two sides–allowing for the demarcation of the remaining 6.1 kilometers of the 4,095-km-long border for the first time since partition in 1947, as well as the adjustment of 166 enclaves and several adverse possessions, where people had continued to live on each other’s lands even though the territory belonged to the other country–had seemed in serious danger until the last minute, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mijarul Quayes confirmed.
It wasn’t supposed to be like that. According to officials in both capitals, India would give in to Dhaka’s long-standing demand to dismantle a prohibitory trading regime in textiles, in return for the transit privileges it had long hankered after; old trading routes that were shut down after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, when Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan, would be opened, restoring ancient relationships.
Meanwhile, the water treaty would allow both countries to share water on a 50:50 basis, the officials said.
“With Pakistan fast becoming a failed state, Afghanistan in the throes of Al Qaeda, Nepal still unstable, Sri Lanka in the process of reaching out to the Tamils after the end of its civil war, and even tiny Maldives battered by a combination of Islamist and authoritarian forces, the new India-Bangladesh relationship was supposed to become a model for India’s vexed relationships with other countries in its neighborhood,” a second Indian diplomat said in Delhi.
“Unfortunately, Delhi missed the big picture,” said Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Dhaka. A new template between Delhi and Dhaka would have stimulated both economies and boosted Ms. Hasina’s political standing.
Instead, Mr. Anam said, Delhi’s failure in getting Kolkata on board the water issue not only compromised Manmohan Singh’s authority with a foreign country, in this case Bangladesh, it also gave Ms. Hasina’s chief rival and former prime minister, Khaleda Zia of the BNP, a political shot in the arm.
“If Khaleda comes to power in the 2013 elections, India will have played no small role in the matter,” said a BNP leader in Dhaka, on condition of anonymity.
South Asian foreign policy experts in Delhi, like former high commissioner to Bangladesh Deb Mukharji, agreed that “inadequate communication” between Delhi and Kolkata, not between Delhi and Dhaka, lay at the root of the problem.
According to Mr Mukharji, “Delhi should have ensured that there was no scope for misunderstanding on the part of West Bengal.”
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s consent was not only imperative but necessary before Delhi finalized the water deal with Dhaka, because under the Indian constitution, water resources are a state subject, the second Indian diplomat added.
Instead, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, a party in alliance with the Congress party both in West Bengal and at the center, was shown the prospective water deal with Bangladesh only two hours before it was intended to be discussed in the Cabinet on Sept. 2, a Trinamool leader told India Real Time.
The Trinamool leader said he requested Manmohan Singh to amend the draft in keeping with the party demand that the water share for Bangladesh be capped at 25%. But all he got in return was a lecture and a scolding on the state’s duties and the center’s responsibilities by finance minister and Congress stalwart Pranab Mukherjee.
According to the Trinamool leader, Mr. Mukherjee said it wasn’t possible at this late stage to amend the water treaty and that foreign policy was the preserve of the Centre, not the state.
“I had to tell him, you have no right to rebuke me, I am duty-bound to represent my state’s interests,” the Trinamool leader said, adding: “The federal government may have the right to run the country’s foreign policy, but the state has the right to protect its assets.”
“If Delhi could show us the draft treaty on the land boundary ahead of time, which we had no problem with, why didn’t they do the same with the water treaty? I think Delhi was trying to hoodwink us,” the Trinamool leader said.
Deb Mukharji pointed out that as the polity became much more federal and “provincial parties became much more assertive, it was clear that Delhi would have to go the extra mile to keep them on board in achieving larger foreign policy objectives.”
As India picks up the pieces from the Bangladesh debacle, officials say they have begun to prepare for its negative impact in the rest of South Asia. “India’s image has suffered a great deal,” a senior Indian official with responsibility for negotiating with the neighborhood said. He said he feared trade concessions during Pakistan Commerce Minister Mohammed Amin Fahim’s visit to Delhi in late September would be in jeopardy.
But Mr. Mukharji believed otherwise: “Most other countries in the neighborhood would be sad to look at India, the largest country in the region, to have been damaged in this way. These countries realize that India is a well-wisher as well as the only nation which can provide real opportunities for their own economic growth.”
First published in Wall Street Journal blog, September 14, 2011
Jyoti Malhotra is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She writes for India’s Business Standard daily and for Pakistan’s Express Tribune