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- In politics, protecting the people’s interest comes first

Critics of West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who accuse her of having overshadowed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh, have conveniently short memory. The chief minister faces two types of critics.

Those who have been associated with the government in the past — many of whom are in office now — only have to sit back and recall identical events of two decades ago in order to exonerate Mamata. But others in the Congress party who have resorted to a low-intensity, simmering campaign against her may have to revisit the past to realize that the Biblical wisdom in the Gospel of John is Mamata’s defence against her critics on the Teesta river water sharing controversy.

“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” Jesus told a mob which wanted to execute a woman accused of adultery. History is proof that by that Biblical yardstick, Congressmen have no right to say anything critical of Mamata for having forced the Prime Minister’s Office to pull the Teesta accord out of Singh’s agenda in Dhaka.

Shahryar Khan was Pakistan’s foreign secretary from 1990 to 1994. The scion of the princely family of Kurwai in Madhya Pradesh and son of the eldest daughter of the last Nawab of Bhopal, Khan and J.N. Dixit sportingly competed in Urdu shayari, flinging catchy, but deeply meaningful lines at one another when Dixit was India’s high commissioner in Islamabad.

By the time Khan arrived in New Delhi on August 16, 1992 for bilateral talks, Dixit had left Islamabad and become foreign secretary in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government. Dixit and Khan held three days of talks, one of the longest meetings between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan. The two foreign secretaries worked out an agreement on the dispute over the Siachen glacier. After Khan received the green light for the settlement from Islamabad, Rao agreed that the resolution of the dispute should be announced the next morning. The foreign secretaries talked over dinner on the night of August 18 and decided that their meeting would be extended till next afternoon to complete the settlement.

But on the morning of August 19, Rao had second thoughts about signing the Siachen pact. Those in Rao’s inner circle at that time insist that it was an early morning phone call from Sharad Pawar which made the prime minister go back on the agreement.

Pawar had been inducted as defence minister a year earlier, after his thwarted bid for the prime minister’s job following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Rao’s aides say that Pawar, in his phone conversation with the prime minister, expressed unwillingness to go along with the Siachen accord. Rao had been a consensus prime minister for just over a year and had not yet fully consolidated his position either in the party or in the government. He could not risk a revolt by the powerful satrap from Maharashtra.

Khan had already briefed some of his friends in the media the previous night about what he had agreed with Dixit and at least one Indian newspaper, if memory serves right, carried an eight-column banner headline that the Siachen dispute was history. The report was factually right, but had been overtaken by events by the time readers saw it at their breakfast tables the following morning. Rao feared that his defence minister would resign if he went ahead with the Siachen settlement and pulled back from the agreement at the eleventh hour.

In today’s Congress party, of course, it is unacceptable to cite Rao as a fit example to be followed. But the party’s history in office cannot be whitewashed or rewritten with impunity. So Mamata is guilty of nothing more than what a previous Congress prime minister had done. And for good reason.

Agreements on thorny issues are not easy to negotiate among friends at the best of times. When it comes to disputes between India and Pakistan with their history of wars and low-intensity conflict, difficulties in arriving at settlements are almost always insurmountable.

The worry about last week’s aborted Teesta agreement is that, as in the case of the 1992 Siachen draft settlement, once they fail to cross the last but most formidable barrier, it is never an easy task to resurrect the mutual trust and accommodation that facilitated a hard-won resolution of the dispute.

After the failure of the August 1992 talks on Siachen, India and Pakistan made one more attempt to resolve the problem. The governor of Jammu and Kashmir, N.N. Vohra, who was defence secretary during that period, laboured with his Pakistani counterpart, Syed Salim Abbas Jilani, for three days in November 1992 to flog back into life the understanding reached between Dixit and Khan two and a half months earlier. They even fine-tuned the proposals and backed them up by a detailed cartographic explanation of the settlement in the hope that they would be acceptable to the political leadership in New Delhi and Islamabad. But the efforts by Vohra and Jilani came to nought.

What the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh must guard against, now that the Teesta agreement has been put on the backburner, is that this pact does not suffer the same fate as the Siachen agreement. Negotiators in New Delhi and Dhaka must not forget in the coming weeks and months that despite Manmohan Singh’s determination to seek peace with Pakistan, he has not been able to revive the Siachen pact which was almost signed nearly two decades ago, but had to be abandoned under circumstances very similar to those that forced the PMO last week to allow the river water sharing agreement to fall by the wayside.

Public memory being notoriously short, it is tempting to accuse Mamata of being tactless, clumsy and diplomatically insensitive in the way she inflicted what was without doubt a blow to the prime minister’s trip to Bangladesh. But here again, history would absolve the West Bengal chief minister who has, in a sense, merely taken a leaf out of Dhaka’s book, especially the Sheikh Hasina Wajed edition of her country’s diplomatic guidebook on relations with India, so to speak.

For much of the first 25 years of Bangladesh’s existence, the sheet anchor of its relations with India was the Indo-Bangladesh treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation which was modelled on a similar treaty between India and the Soviet Union. The two treaties were signed seven months apart from each other. Durga Prasad Dhar, Indira Gandhi’s close associate who was ambassador in Moscow twice, told this columnist long ago, as a young reporter, that Indira was never keen on the treaty with Dhaka, but went along with the idea to humour Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who wanted something more tangible than a joint statement or a declaration at the end of the prime minister’s first visit to Bangladesh in March 1972.

Mujib felt that a mass of between eight and nine lakh Bangladeshis who gathered for Indira’s public meeting was not enough of a tribute to her. According to Dhar’s account, Mujib called Indira “Didi” when the two were together and kept asking the visiting prime minister to suggest a centerpiece for her stay in Dhaka. It was Dhar, who had earlier been involved in work on the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, who proposed a similar treaty to Mujib.

Notwithstanding her father’s imprint on the treaty, however, Sheikh Hasina joined the chorus against its renewal when it was approaching its 25-year expiry date. Indeed, it was during her prime ministership that Bangladesh decided that the treaty which her father sought and got from Indira Gandhi would be allowed to lapse.

That episode ought to remind Mamata that there is no room for sentiment in politics and that she should be guided solely by her political instinct and a desire to protect the interests of the people who elected her to office in dealing with the Teesta accord rather than by some vague desire to give in to the prime minister’s uncertain effort to improve relations with Dhaka, the results of which may well be unpredictable.

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