Banking on Teesta

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurance to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that “only my government and your government... can and will find an early solution to Teesta water-sharing issue” has been endlessly debated. The comment, which was made in front of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, raised eyebrows as it was interpreted as being a step to bypass Ms. Banerjee, who has consistently opposed the changes Dhaka seeks in the sharing of Teesta waters. But it will be difficult to sidestep Ms. Banerjee as water is a State subject and requires her assent.

Can Mr. Modi then adopt a circuitous route by amending the Constitution to transfer the subject of water from the State List to the Concurrent List, as was indicated by Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti? The amendment would require approval by a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament — the BJP doesn’t have the numbers yet in the Upper House.

Second, to quote Ms. Banerjee, Teesta is the “lifeline” of north Bengal; ruling parties have never touched it for fear of losing the northern base. The Left Front’s successive Irrigation Ministers insisted that if the waters of the Teesta were shared, it would only “strengthen the opposition (then Mamata Banerjee).” Ms. Banerjee too has maintained that if water is given from water-deficit areas, the onus would be “on them (the Central government)”.

Ms. Banerjee, however, would perhaps not be averse to witness an accord where she, with a majority, is bypassed; it would be doubly beneficial for her. She would get rid of her anti-Bangladesh image by protecting the Teesta barrage at Jalpaiguri; on the other hand, she would be able to put the BJP on the defensive in north Bengal.

There is also no reason to think that the BJP is keen to strengthen the Chief Minister of a State where it is on the ascendant. Handing over a larger share of Teesta waters to Bangladesh is handing over north Bengal to Ms. Banerjee before the 2018 panchayat poll. Conversely, for Ms. Banerjee, it makes absolutely no political sense to give in to Bangladesh. She could lose parts of north Bengal, while losing her only bargaining chip, the Teesta, to the Central government.

It’s all internal

Indeed, Bangladesh’s former Foreign Secretary Tauhid Hossain has a point when he blames, as he did in an interview, India’s “internal politics” for the deadlock. For Bangladesh, Teesta has emerged as a new bargaining chip vis-a-vis India. Diplomats acknowledge that Dhaka’s growing friendship, as indicated through an astronomical investment, with Beijing has disturbed New Delhi, and finding an “early solution” is way more difficult now.

Bangladesh’s diplomatic missions here do not live in hope. The pessimism has even reached Dhaka; the Awami League cancelled the customary public reception of the Prime Minister on arrival, arguing that such receptions disturb the traffic. But when have the Bengalis — in the east and the west — prioritised public inconvenience over political programmes? The river that received “greatest attention” has thus lost sight of the shore in the summer of 2017.

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