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Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya on India-Bangladesh Teesta River deal

However, Debapriya Bhattacharya of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank, sounded a word of caution.

“One should not take this new-found bipartisan consensus for granted…. If there is no time-bound solution to Teesta, there would be a pushback. Other issues like killings along the border or any persecution of minorities in India may suddenly change things here,” Bhattacharya summed up.

 

Published in The Telegraph, India on Saturday, 6 June 2015.

Dhaka air-bridge to Didi
Hasina asks Mamata to extend stay

Devadeep Purohit

Dhaka, June 5: When AI 230 entered Bangladeshi airspace, the captain announced: “This flight has been granted VIP status.”

Flight AI 230 was ferrying chief minister Mamata Banerjee – and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was building an air-bridge to a mercurial leader who holds the key to a water-sharing issue no one wants to mention publicly unless and until the thorns are plucked.

Mamata’s touchdown was marked by a tweet from her: “Just landed in Dhaka. Happy to be here and send my first tweet from here. My greetings to all my brothers and sisters in Bangladesh.”

Soon after Mamata landed in Dhaka this evening, Hasina called the guest and spoke to her for 15 minutes.

Sources said that the Bangladesh Prime Minister had asked the chief minister to spend tomorrow night as well in Dhaka and attend the state dinner that Hasina is hosting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is scheduled to reach here tomorrow.

According to Mamata’s schedule, she is supposed to leave Dhaka by a 9.10pm flight tomorrow. The chief minister was keen to confine her presence to the ceremony where the Land Boundary Agreement is scheduled to be signed and return to Calcutta after that without getting entangled in any talks on the Teesta water-sharing pact. However, with Hasina rolling out the red carpet mid-flight itself and making a personal appeal to Mamata to extend her stay, it remains to be seen how the chief minister responds.

Sources in Bangladesh said Hasina’s gesture came against the backdrop of suggestions in the local media that Modi and Mamata were not on same page. The inference has been drawn by the media from the little detail that separate hotels have been booked for Modi and Mamata. While the Indian Prime Minister is expected to stay at Pan Pacific Sonargaon Dhaka, the chief minister has checked into the Radisson here.

The hotels are separated by 12km, a gap – imaginary or otherwise – that Hasina is now trying to bridge through her charm offensive on Mamata.

The sources spoke of the possibility of a meeting between Modi and Mamata before two events – the boundary agreement-signing ceremony and a bus flag-off – where they are expected to come face to face in any case.

The morning need not always show the day but bonhomie appeared to be the dominant theme in Dhaka on the eve of Modi’s visit. Anti-India rhetoric from a section of the political spectrum – a common factor preceding visits by Indian Premiers – is missing this time.

Giant billboards emblazoned with messages like “Long Live HE (His Excellency) Prime Minister Narendra Modi” and “Heartiest welcome to HE Prime Minister Narendra Modi” adorn the main roads of Dhaka. Such billboards alone need not be taken as proof of the mood because the Bangladesh capital had seen similar cutouts of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the summer of 2011.

What makes it different this time is the approach of the main Opposition in the country of over 16 crore people whose loyalties are split between the ruling Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami combine.

“We welcome the visit of Prime Minister Modi and we hope that it will pave the way for stronger India-Bangladesh ties…. We are very happy with the Indian government doing its bit to implement the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh,” said Sabihuddin Ahmed, one of the foreign policy advisers to BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia.

When Prime Minister Singh could not deliver on the promise of sealing deals on the river water and the exchange of enclaves because of Mamata’s pullout from the tour of Bangladesh in 2011, the Opposition had gone after the Hasina government.

Back in 1996, when the historic sharing of water from the Ganga was signed between Hasina and the then Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, the Opposition had cried foul and accused the government of not protecting the interests of Bangladesh.

Cut to 2015, it is altogether a different story. BNP leaders – known for whipping up anti-India sentiments – are proactively trying to send across the message that the party is keen on developing a healthy relationship with the neighbour.

Not only the BNP but also its hardliner ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has issued a statement prior to Modi’s visit welcoming the Indian Prime Minister.

In the statement, the acting Ameer of Jamaat – the staunchest critic of Hasina and her policies – has said: “I do believe and expect that the ensuing trip of the Indian Prime Minister would help resolve all the existing problems between Bangladesh and India.”

The Opposition leaders’ enthusiasm to make themselves heard before the arrival of Modi has become a talking point here.

Several treaties – officials peg the number at 20 – are likely to be signed between the two countries during the next two days as part of attempts by the two Prime Ministers to bolster bilateral trade, commerce and cooperation in securing the two countries. Sources in Dhaka confirmed that Modi would offer Bangladesh a substantial line of credit to help the country lay infrastructure, a prerequisite for higher growth of the Bangla economy.

Both the Indian and Bangladeshi establishments are steering clear of one of the most awaited deals between the two countries – Teesta water-sharing – and the Opposition parties have glossed over it till now.

The change in approach, said some analysts in Dhaka, owes to the Opposition’s realisation of the importance of the India-Bangladesh relationship.

“Whether they like it or not, the Opposition parties have realised that India does have a role both in our economy and politics… So, they seem to be more amenable and friendly,” said a political analyst.

“Among the Opposition, those who are pathologically anti-India are on the back foot because they have lost ground to the Awami League…. And the elements in Jamaat who are ideologically against India have gone underground because of the crackdown on them.”

That the BNP-led Opposition is keen on sending a positive message to Delhi became clear after its leaders were heard proudly announcing Modi’s decision to meet their chairperson, Begum Khaleda Zia.

“Our foreign ministry has been saying that there won’t be any meeting between Begum Khaleda and the Indian PM, but see what happened,” said Ahmed, the adviser to Khaleda.

Khaleda had refused a courtesy call on Indian President Pranab Mukherjee in Dhaka in March 2013, which did not go down well with Delhi.

The relationship took a further beating when a section of the BNP-Jamaat combine started accusing India of siding with the Awami League government prior to the 2014 general election, which the Opposition boycotted as its demand for a poll-time caretaker government was not met.

“Probably there is a rethink in the BNP and also a repositioning vis-à-vis India…. The signals are too strong to be missed,” said a senior diplomat with a European country.

Against this backdrop, Modi will land in Dhaka with a head start as there is unlikely to be any major criticism of India during his trip.

However, Debapriya Bhattacharya of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank, sounded a word of caution.

“One should not take this new-found bipartisan consensus for granted…. If there is no time-bound solution to Teesta, there would be a pushback. Other issues like killings along the border or any persecution of minorities in India may suddenly change things here,” Bhattacharya summed up.

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