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BEYOND NATIONAL INTEREST - The Teesta issue has driven home the importance of federalism

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By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 16.09.11

The idea that the nation is larger than the sum of its parts readily finds an echo in New Delhi, the archetypal Imperial Capital carefully planned by Sir Edwin Lutyens to inspire both awe and reverence. The present-day Republic, undergoing serious mid-life convulsions, may not quite fit the bill as the deserving successor to the mighty raj, but its functionaries still retain all the mental trappings of an imperial power, especially when it comes to dealing with the provinces.

It came as no surprise, therefore, that India’s national embarrassment during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka last week generated much tut-tutting. There was horror over the subordination of something as pristine pure as ‘foreign policy’ to parochial interests by a chief minister who was said to fancy herself as West Bengal’s Joan of Arc. The grapevine suggested that Pranab Mukherjee had burnt a fuse after the mild-mannered Trinamul Congress member of the cabinet indicated “Didi’s” misgivings over the proposed Teesta water agreement. On TV, a member of the Delhi commentariat pronounced sombrely that Mamata Banerjee should first learn to behave before she acquired the privilege of being taken seriously in the Imperial Capital. Among the retired members of the Indian Foreign Service, there was broad consensus that Mamata’s shenanigans shouldn’t have been tolerated and that a firm prime minister would simply have overruled all objections and proceeded to sign the agreement in the ‘larger national interest’.

If the version being put out by a beleaguered South Block and Prime Minister’s Office is to be believed, a cynical Mamata double-crossed Manmohan and facilitated one of the biggest diplomatic disasters in recent times. The reasons given for the chief minister’s alleged duplicity vary according to the audience. It has been said that Mamata is temperamentally prone to violent mood swings; that she wanted to take it out on the Congress, and the finance minister in particular, for the difficulties encountered in securing extraordinary financial accommodation; that she feared a CPI(M) resurgence in North Bengal; that she couldn’t countenance the idea of being a member of the supporting cast in the delegation to Dhaka; and that she probably expected a Union cabinet minister to fall at her feet or, as Jairam Ramesh did with the land acquisition bill, flatter her into submission.

A common thread that runs through these proffered explanations of Mamata’s awkwardness is that the Centre and particularly the ministry of external affairs were innocent victims of one woman’s volatility. The Centre says that Calcutta was always kept in the loop and “informed” at every step. It has been said that the prime minister spoke to Mamata and secured her approval. Much has also been made of the trip by the national security adviser (accompanied by the water resources secretary) to Calcutta after the TMC threw a spanner in the works at the meeting of the cabinet committee on political affairs.

The Union government’s defence has been broadly digested in Delhi, particularly by the so-called “strategic affairs community” that views any interaction with the NSA as the high-point of any engagement. Yet, two issues are worth considering.

First, in the eyes of an elected chief minister with an eye to mass politics, the NSA is just another bureaucratic functionary. Shiv Shankar Menon may be an accomplished diplomat who, if Delhi’s bush telegraph is any guide, is both de-facto external affairs minister and foreign secretary. However, at the end of the day, he is not a political functionary and is not empowered to take political decisions. That he enjoys the trust of the prime minister is undeniable. At the same time, his record of negotiating delicate matters of political importance is poor. His attempts to persuade the Opposition to support the original version of the civil nuclear liability bill, for example, came a complete cropper. It finally needed an empowered political veteran in the form of the finance minister to negotiate a give-and-take arrangement with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The final Act may not have been to the liking of the US state department, but it did reflect the broadest national consensus on the subject.

In the past, whenever the issue of river water was negotiated with Bangladesh, successive governments at the Centre had taken exceptional care to accommodate West Bengal’s concerns. Indira Gandhi, for example, entrusted the responsibility of engaging with the then chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, to Jagjivan Ram. During the United Front rule, External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral met Jyoti Basu on a number of occasions and the joint secretary dealing with Bangladesh went on joint river visits with the chief minister.

Compared to past exercises, the approach of the MEA on this occasion appears remarkably casual. Whether this has got to do with the absence of a functioning external affairs minister or the presumption that an United Progressive Alliance ally could be taken for granted is something the Delhi Establishment needs to agonize over.

Secondly, the Centre appears to have been insufficiently mindful of the grim realities of a federal polity. Since foreign policy and international treaties belong exclusively to the Centre’s domain, MEA officials are inadequately sensitive to the issue of wider consultations within India. The scope of India’s public diplomacy doesn’t extend to making the provinces feel a part of the foreign policy processes.

Whether the prime minister could have ridden roughshod over the objections of the state and negotiated the Teesta water sharing with Bangladesh belongs to a grey area of the Constitution. But regardless of its superior rights in law, it is reassuring that the issue of conflicting rights was not tested. Perhaps this owed to the importance of the TMC as the Congress’s largest coalition partner in the UPA. Would the Centre have backed down had, say, the issue involved an agreement with Pakistan over the Rann of Kutch where the Gujarat government was in firm disagreement? In the past, Rajiv Gandhi’s government had not hesitated to dismiss the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu for actions that went against the grain of India’s Sri Lanka policy.

Arguably, there was no national security involved in the river water agreement with Bangladesh to warrant precipitate action — although that itself makes the over-involvement of the NSA somewhat inexplicable. However, that is still no justification for what someone described as “MEA unilateralism”. The point to note is that the demand for sharing the Teesta waters downstream did not come from West Bengal. It was aimed at meeting a long-standing demand by Bangladesh for which it was willing to concede transit rights to Chittagong for the north-eastern states. In short, West Bengal was being asked to be accommodative for the sake of the larger “national interest”.

The Centre was acting in India’s best interests. Yet, since the whole arrangement with Bangladesh was premised on the principle of quid pro quo, Mamata was equally justified in implicitly asking what West Bengal would gain from the arrangement. Moreover, since the Teesta flows into North Bengal from Sikkim, it was only fair that the small Himalayan state should also be brought into the calculation. One of the shortcomings of the Ganga water treaty of 1996 that Nitish Kumar has rightly drawn attention to is that Bihar was not consulted.

The diplomatic fiasco in Dhaka points to the complete unviability of any international agreement with neighbours before there is a broad domestic agreement on the subject. Mamata has been sufficiently vilified in the Imperial Capital but in the process she has successfully driven home the overriding importance of federalism. There has to be a mindset change: Delhi must reconcile itself to its new role as a service centre for the states of the Union.