West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said on the Republic Day, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Kolkata Book Fair, that it was no geography but politics that has divided the two Bengals (West Bengal and Bangladesh). Incidentally, the theme of this year's book fair is Bangladesh and the CM's words sounded nice, particularly ahead of the visit of Sushilkumar Shinde, the Indian home minister, to Dhaka. The two neighbours signed an extradition treaty besides a liberalised visa regime. But the question is: does the Bengal CM herself rise above politics to allow a smooth functioning of the bilateral relationship?
She had objected to India's proposed agreement with Bangladesh on the sharing of the Teesta River water in 2011, saying it was objctionable for it was said to be against the state's interest. The specific objections were not clear and political circles said it was the strained relation between the Centre and state government over financial assistance that had created obstacle in the way of the crucial treaty. Banerjee's last-minute objection and withdrawal from the entourage of the Indian Prime Minister's entourage to Dhaka then was a surprising shock for New Delhi. Last year, She also objected to a land agreement, the signature achievement of Prime Minister Singh in 2011, between the two countries.
This time, Banerjee was found saying that she always supported a good relation between India and Bangladesh, but will she follow her words with action?
Teesta treaty key for both Bangladesh and india
The Teesta water treaty is crucial for both the countries in a number of ways. Particularly for the Sheikh Hasina government, which is often attacked by its political opposition as 'pro-India', it offers a big opportunity to ward off some of the criticism that it assists India in denying safe haven and cracking down on anti-India outfits.
Through the Teesta treaty, the Hasina government could have shown prior to the elections due in a year that it was engaging with India to serve Bangladesh's national interests. Moreover, if the Teesta treay went through, a similar treaty could be inked for the Feni River that flows through Tripura into Bangladesh.
For India, the Teesta treaty would give connectivity to the geographically disadvantageous north-eastern states and beyond to back a strong Look East Policy. Four north-eastern chief ministers were also included in the delegation of PM Singh in 2011. But the obduracy of Banerjee spoiled all hopes then. The Bangladeshi foreign minister also tried to convince Banerjee but she refused, which left the Bangladeshi side aghast and there were warnings that Dhaka could seek international intervention to settle the issue.
The situation, however, improved much since then. Banerjee is said to have good terms with the new Bangladeshi deputy high commissioner in Kolkata and state ministers were found participating in the recent Bangladesh Mela organised by Bangladeshi authorities.
The Centre has informed the state government about Dhaka's cooperation in curbing terrorism in the Bangladeshi territory and the extradition treaty marks an important step in the bilateral relation. A terror leader in Tripura was handed over to New Delhi by Dhaka recently. In this situation, the role of Banerjee, who leads a state that has the longest boundary with Bangladesh, becomes very significant. The momentum in the Indo-Bangla relations has been found to be slowing down in recent times and it needs to be kick-started. The point is: These two countries witness a massive people-to-people engagement and West Bengal can always play a vital role in improving the relation between the two at the state level. Is Banerjee willing, particularly after her withdrawal from the UPA last year? Her recent outburst against PM Singh sent the message across, even in Bangladesh, that the Teesta deal could continue to be clouded.
Can we allow domestic political problems to disrupt foreign policy?
If the country's foreign policy formulations get hijacked by domestic political turbulence, then it is indeed unfortunate. It is true that the Centre should take along that state which has a stake in the foreign policy priorities, but it is also the responsibility of the state to understand what lies best for the nation.
If Banerjee believes there are issues that need to be addressed in the interest of Bengal, then there should be a parliamentary procedure to resolve issues. The same goes for the Centre. A top US official had come to meet Banerjee last year to speak on issues pertaining to Bangladesh. Now, India's foreign minister Salman Khurshid is also preparing to take Banerjee into confidence to go ahead with the treaty.
The West Bengal CM, at the moment, is busy amid protest and fest in the Darjeeling hills. Teesta might not be a priority for her at the moment. Eager quarters may have to wait.