There can be no quarrel with the position that States bordering India's neighbours must be consulted in framing bilateral policies with those countries, especially when it comes to sharing crucial natural resources. New Delhi's proposed agreement with Bangladesh on a formula to share the waters of the river Teesta needed to take West Bengal along. But Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's row over the draft agreement on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's important visit to Bangladesh has set a new low in the shaping of India's foreign policy. The State government evidently knew in advance that the agreement was in the works, and was familiar with its provisions. National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon met the Chief Minister for a discussion on August 31. For days New Delhi had been describing the Teesta pact as a crucial component of Prime Minister Singh's visit. So why did Ms Banerjee wait until the last minute to declare it was unacceptable to her? Although the specific objections are unclear, the State government is said to have found the agreement “detrimental to the interests” of West Bengal. There is also speculation that the decision was prompted by the Trinamool Congress leader's differences with the Centre over the State's financial allocation. That New Delhi was caught unawares by her dramatic withdrawal from Dr. Singh's entourage to Dhaka indicates that it had no prior indication of her dissent. The agreement has been jettisoned at least for now, the Mamata-authored fiasco casting a shadow over the visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh in 12 years.
Sheikh Hasina's government is already targeted by political opponents for its perceived ‘pro-India' tilt. Prime Minister Hasina might have hoped to use the Teesta pact to ward off some of this criticism — levelled against her for cooperating with India on denying safe haven to ULFA and cracking down on anti-India Islamist groups. It was also hoped that a similar treaty would follow for the Feni river that flows through Tripura into Bangladesh. For its part, New Delhi expected that the give on the Teesta would yield connectivity through Bangladesh to the North-East States and beyond, underlined by the inclusion of four Chief Ministers from the region in the delegation to Dhaka. All this is up in the air now. Prime Minister Singh's visit was billed as one that would “craft a new paradigm” in a complicated bilateral relationship. With the likely signing of a border agreement and an extradition pact, the visit is not a complete write off. But there was a palpable feeling of let-down even before the Prime Minister's delegation took off from Delhi.