I have vivid memories of the events leading to the 1997 Ganges Water-Sharing Treaty between India and Bangladesh. Soon after taking over as Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina sent Abdur Razzaq, who is no more, to touch base with West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu.
Mr Basu had been offered prime ministership by the newly formed United Front but his own party had stopped him from taking charge. That prompted an irate Basu to dub it ‘historic blunder’ and the rest is now history.
But Hasina knew well that Basu would be the key to the water-sharing treaty not only because he was the most respected leader in the newly clubbed United Front but also because he was West Bengal Chief Minister and Delhi would think twice if Bengal objected to a deal on this sensitive issue.
Mr. Razzaq’s visit was followed by another by Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad.
The BNP cried wolf and blamed Hasina for dealing with a ‘state government’ of India. But Hasina knew the dynamics of Indian politics better than Khaleda.
She knew Basu was the key and she was right. I remember Basu telling the Awami League leaders to touch base with ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury, a prominent Congress federal minister and the real heavyweight in North Bengal politics.”
“If Barkat Saheb creates trouble, I would be undone,” he reminded the AL leaders. I was close to Barkat Saheb and also Razzaq Saheb and so I accompanied the latter to the former’s ancestral house in Maldah.
Barkat Saheb was sympathetic and promised Razzaq all the help, though he comes from an area which would be directly affected if more waters was given to Bangladesh. In fact, he called up Basu, with whom he shared strong personal relations despite much political rivalry, and assured him of all help on the issue.
Much relieved, Basu took the initiative to push through the accord and one of his top officials, Dhruba Ghoshal, played a major role in drafting the accord.
Basu was a far-sighted politician as much as he was nostalgic about his East Bengali roots which made him a friend of Bangladesh, like many of us are.
He also knew the importance of a secular regime in Dhaka and its importance for the whole of eastern India. “If Islamic fundamentalists grow in Bangladesh, we cannot stop Hindu fundamentalists from growing here,” Basu would often say.
Most Awami League politicians, like Hasina, count on Bengali politicians in India to back their case with Delhi — and with good reason. We share a natural bonding born out of the travails of the 1971 Liberation War, which we saw as much as our battle as that of the people of Bangladesh.
And when I say our battle, I say that as a Bengali more than as an Indian. This dynamics has remained unchanged since the 1960s when the Bengali autonomy movement was developing in East Pakistan or rather could be traced back to the 1952 Language Movement which heralded the onset of linguistic Bengali nationalism.
So it was not wrong for Hasina to expect support from Mamata Banerjee when she proceeded to do a deal with India on the Teesta Water-Sharing Treaty. She thought she had the best of relations with Banerjee and such personal relations would pull the whole thing through. Little did she know that Banerjee would be a thorn in her flesh.
The situation is changed from the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, Delhi would be less than welcoming to Bangladesh’s aspirations and it would be left to leaders like Basu to push through deals like the Ganges water sharing.
Now the Manmohans and Menons in Delhi understand the importance of keeping Bangladesh happy and meet its bonafide aspirations but the opposition comes from Kolkata, from a leader who says she heads a Bengali regional party and gains all her mileage by playing on Bengali sentiments.
Nothing could be more sad and unfortunate. Just see her reaction to the introduction of the 119th constitutional amendment bill to formalise the land boundary agreement — she calls it ‘shameless and unfortunate’ after having cleared it in August 2011. I have been too long in journalism to believe the Chief Secretary would have cleared it in his letter to India’s Foreign Secretary without consulting the Chief Minister who has been newly elected. Specially someone like Mamata . She can swing 360 degrees in no time. That may explain her success but makes her a dangerous ally who none can believe.
Mamata has no real case on Teesta. Her claim that it would undermine West Bengal’s interest is a red herring. Or else why is she not putting out on public domain the report submitted to her by hydrologist Kalyan Rudra, who she appointed to look into the Teesta issue! I would challenge her to produce an expert opinion to prove the Teesta deal envisaged by Delhi would harm Bengal’s interest.
The real issue lies elsewhere.
Mamata has been seeking a 25000 crore rupees special package from Delhi to bolster her state’s dwindling finances and to pursue her randomly populist schemes. She first made this demand to Pranab Mukherji when Pranab Babu was Finance Minister. But India has 28 states and the Finance Minister cannot extend a special package to his home state just because it is headed by an ally (Mamata’s Trinamul Congress and Pranab Babu’s Congress were allies then)!
This is not how public finance works in India. For Mamata to behave as the Railway Minister of Bengal when she was actually Railway Minister of India may, because she is a regional leader like Nitish Kumar or Laloo Prasad Yadav but it is pretty difficult for a Congress or BJP politician because they hail from national parties.
Mamata’s instant decision to arm twist Manmohan Singh on Teesta could be traced to her failure to secure this special package. But there is more to it.
Mamata’s Muslim power base in West Bengal is almost centered round the Urdu-speaking Muslims, popularly called Biharis in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Look at all the top Muslim leaders of her party and you know what I am talking about.
This lobby is bitterly opposed to Bangladesh as a secular nation and they strongly empathise with the Jamaat-e-Islami. They feel their people suffered in the aftermath of the Liberation War against Pakistan, all because of the Awami League and the Mukti Bahini. These Urdu-speaking Muslims also account for the top clerics in Calcutta who Mamata courts strongly to secure her minority support base.
The Bengali Muslims here in districts like Murshidabad or Maldah still vote for Congress – the legacy of ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury, our dear ‘Barkat da’, is still alive. So it is not difficult to connect the dots, is it! Now Mamata is trying to penetrate these areas using state power.
The US was mighty pleased with Mamata for toppling the Communists in Bengal because it helped them avenge the Communist threat to bring down UPA government on the nuclear issue which the US was keen to push through.
Leftists here have always alleged the US funding for Trinamul since the early 2000. They claim they have evidence and they point to the sudden spurt of Trinamul funding of media campaigns and mass mobilisation during the Singur-Nandigram campaigns.
Now that the US wants to see the back of Hasina in Bangladesh, something abundantly clear by now, would it not be in the scheme of things that they would seek to use someone to torpedo the Teesta and land boundary deals and embarrass Hasina before a crucial election?
Mamata’s importance for the US was underscored by former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visiting her on way to Delhi from Dhaka to congratulate her on victory. A victory which meant as much to Mamata as to the US.
I left East Pakistan as a child and as a journalist have followed Bangladesh since the days of East Pakistan. I am ready to put my head on bet to say the Teesta deal would have been through in a flash if the Left had remained in power in Kolkata when Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka to sign it. There would be no difficulty in pushing the LBA through as well.
The ‘Mamata’ factor has changed all that.
Sukharanjan Dasgupta, a veteran journalist, worked for Ananda Bazar Patrika and ‘Blitz’ until he retired. His biography on Mamata Banerjee is now being published.