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Call to Mamata before Dhaka flight

New Delhi, June 25: Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj today telephoned Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee before flying to Bangladesh for her first foreign trip, signalling to both Calcutta and Dhaka that the NDA government will keep the state’s sentiments in mind in negotiations with its neighbour.

Sushma is expected to assure Dhaka that the Narendra Modi government remains committed to key pacts signed between the nations under the UPA regime, when she meets Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Thursday.

But her pre-departure phone call to Mamata today triggered concerns in both Bangladesh and sections of India’s own foreign policy establishment that had hoped Modi’s clear mandate would enable New Delhi to dictate the nation’s diplomatic agenda.

Mamata, opposed to both a land swap pact and a Teesta water-sharing agreement, had forced these plans onto the backburner for the Congress-led UPA government that did not have a majority in either House after Trinamul withdrew support in September 2012.

“We had hoped — and still hope — the Indian government, and not state governments, will decide India’s foreign policy,” a Bangladesh official said. “We had hoped to see India fulfil its commitments under the new government and we hope this is no sign that we should expect less.”

The Congress, which with 206 MPs in the Lok Sabha, was dependent throughout its second term on allies like Trinamul and the DMK — when they were part of the UPA — and later when neutralising them in Parliament was critical for the government to pass any law.

Both parties extracted diplomatic concessions in exchange — Trinamul through its opposition to the Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta accord, and the DMK on ties with Sri Lanka — that left India’s foreign policy establishment moaning. The land pact involves swapping tracts of land India and Bangladesh claim, but that are embedded in the other’s territory.

In contrast, the BJP alone has 282 MPs in Parliament now and is not dependent in the Lok Sabha on parties like Trinamul.

Modi’s decision to invite leaders from India’s neighbourhood — including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa — was viewed by India’s diplomatic community and by its neighbours as a sign of change.

“The previous government would have had to plan for years to call the Pakistan PM and the Sri Lankan President as guests of honour,” an official said. “The decision to call them for the swearing-in hinted to us that the new government will, using its numbers, not bow down to regional politics in determining larger national interest.”

But the BJP does not yet have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, and especially ahead of the budget may not want to antagonise parties like the AIADMK and Trinamul, the two largest Opposition parties after the Congress in the current Lok Sabha.

The phone call may also help the BJP — a rising force in Bengal — project to its support base that the Modi government took the state’s interests on board while negotiating with Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, Sushma has also sought an appointment with former Prime Minister and current leader of Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia.