Why did Mamata Didi’s visit to Dhaka?

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid | February 24, 2015 4:32 pm

The West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee (Didi) arrived in Dhaka on 19th February for a three day visit and her entourage includes ministers, business, media and eminent cultural media personalities.

Mamata is quintessentially a politician and observers say she came here to achieve the objective of what may be called “She came, charmed the people of Bangladesh with her personality and left “ with reassurance of love for Bangladesh.

Mamata has always been an activist and street fighter but often unpredictable in her conduct. She has become an enigmatic politician and her critics say she has been a bit dictatorial in governing the state.

She was accorded a VIP welcome in Dhaka and .the visit has drawn widespread attention because in September 2011, Ms Banerjee of Trinamool Congress had pulled out of a delegation to Dhaka led by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was expected to make a major announcement on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta. She claimed the pact would harm the interests of the people of north Bengal through which the Teesta flows. Her move had embarrassed Manmohan Singh and forced him to not being able to sign the pact.

Since then she was known as a “spoiler” of maintaining good relations between Bangladesh and India and Bangladesh people was surprised that she opposed the water sharing agreement without explaining the reasons for it. Later she constituted one-man commission with a noted water expert Kalyan Rudra who after two years reportedly submitted the report supporting a water deal with Bangladesh, However the report was not disclosed by the West Bengal government.

Sweeter Mamata:

This time she was totally different in her conduct in Dhaka.. She was charming, talked about the unity of people of Bangladesh and West Bengal because they speak Bengali. She also chose the date of the visit to enable her to pay respect to martyrs for the Bengali language which unites with the people of West Bengal with people of Bangladesh. She has been found very clever in choosing her cultural personalities in the entourage who are well-known and popular in Bangladesh.

Furthermore she has been criticised for not being a pro-business chief minister with Bangladesh because the business community in Bangladesh points at tariff, non-tariff and para-tariff barriers of West Bengal as hurdles to increasing exports to India and that was why she encouraged her business delegation to sign a pact forming a joint business council for quick resolution of disputes in bilateral trade and investment.

On thorny issue of the Land Boundary Agreement which envisaged the swapping of enclaves between the two countries. Ms Banerjee had recently softened her stand when the Modi government was determined to go ahead with the ratification of the Agreement by bringing a bill in the parliament.

Politically Mamata Banejee has been cornered by the Modi government since it came to power last May. BJP wants to win the next West Bengal Legislative election scheduled to be held in 2016 by defeating the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee. If BJP wins the election as it did in Maharashtra and Haryana, West Bengal will be led by BJP chief minister who will pursue the policy of New Delhi with Bangladesh. Whatever policy New Delhi pursues towards Bangladesh, it can easily be disrupted by the non-BJP government in West Bengal as has been found in the past when Mamata opposed the signing of the Teesta water agreement and the Land Boundary Agreement involving exchange of enclaves.

Furthermore Ms. Banerjee seems to have become politically weak. The divisions among the leaders has led to the loss of the two by-election results in the state,. BJP, which has been gaining ground in West Bengal riding the Saradha scam, has posed a biggest political threat to the TNC of Banerjee at the West Bengal election.

It may be recalled that the Saradha scam has appeared to have tainted the reputation of Ms. Banejee and her party leaders. The Kolkata-based Saradha Group is said to have defrauded thousands of investors, including poor people, in West Bengal, leading to the arrest of its owner Sudipta Sen. Saradha Group, had over 10,000 registered chit funds across the country and with an aggregate turnover of Rs 30,000 crore per annum.

The shadow thrown by the Saradha scandal is slowly creeping up the hierarchy of the Trinamool Congress. After two Rajya Sabha MPs, the CBI arrested Madan Mitra, one of most powerful ministers in Mamata Banerjee’s Cabinet, for his alleged involvement in the multi-crore chit fund scam.

The BJP president alleged Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was more interested in trying to save her scam-tainted party leaders than developing the state. Shah also reminded people that the Mamata government had opposed an NIA probe into the Burdwan blast in January, throwing a question to his audience, “Will you allow such a state government which gives priority to vote-bank politics over national security?”

The question is why did she come to Dhaka ?

There are several reasons, some of which deserve mention. First she wants to soften the minds of the BJP leaders including Prime Minister Modi towards her by visiting Bangladesh so as to enable her to become a “facilitator” between the Bangladesh government and the Modi government in resolving long-pending issues between Bangladesh and India as the former chief minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu of CPM helped in signing the 1996 Indo-Bangladesh Ganges Water Agreement for 30 years..

Second, she wants to demonstrate to the people of West Bengal that she is popular with the government and people of Bangladesh with a view to winning the 2016 legislative election in West Bengal because many people in West Bengal did not approve poisoning the relationship between Bangladesh and West Bengal at a time when both Bangladesh and West Bengal people including the artists and cultural personalities from West Bengal are being highly valued in Bangladesh. Third, although her party has won 34 seats out of total 42 in the Lok Sabha in the May parliamentary election, BJP’s overwhelming victory with 282 seats ( BJP and its allies NDA =336) has diminished her political leverage with the Modi government and by visiting Bangladesh she wants to restore some kind of influence with the Modi government.

The West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sought to reassure the people of Bangladesh “You may have questions in your mind about Teesta. Please keep faith in me about that. You have some problems, we have some problems. I will discuss that with Hasinaji on 21 February when I meet the Prime Minister. Leave it to us. Don’t worry about it. Padma, Megna, Ganga, Jamuna – we have never seen divisions there. No one will be able to divide us even if they want to,” Ms Banerjee said in Dhaka.

When she met with Bangladesh Prime Minister, both of them discussed in lighter vein the issues which have political undertones. Mamata reportedly wanted to have more Hilsa fish for West Bengal and the Prime Minister quipped that it would be available if there was more water in the river. Mamata replied that she did not Hilsa fish from Teesta River.

Her story of “problems” seems to be that the Central Water Commission is a premier technical organization of India in the field of water resources and is presently functioning as an attached office of the Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India. Teesta River flows from Sikkim and Sikkim has many water projects which deplete water to West Bengal. If Sikkim can be persuaded to by the Modi government to release more water to West Bengal, the chief minister then is able to share water with Bangladesh.

But the question mark over Teesta remains for two reasons; First the election in West Bengal will take place in 2016 and second the BJP and Trinamool Congress of Banerjee are likely to contest the election and it is reported that politically it is not desirable before the state- election to sign the Teesta Water sharing agreement with Bangladesh.

Let us now wait how the political game is played out between TNC and BJP in the coming months in West Bengal political arena and its impact on Bangladesh.

Finally, Bangladesh is strategically important for India primarily for two reasons: (a) connectivity (transit or transshipment) through Bangladesh to the northeastern states and maintenance of security and so long Bangladesh can provide these Indian core interests and irrespective of the party in power in New Delhi, the relations with Bangladesh will be cooperative.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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