To Do or Not to Do, Modi’s Dilemma on Manmohan’s Teesta Formula

Why should a tough leader like Narendra Modi, not afraid of huge risks like demonetisation, shy away from working out a deal with friendly neighbour Bangladesh just because a regional satrap is throwing tantrums!

Unlike DeMo, Modi stands to gain all the way if he signs the Teesta river water sharing deal with Hasina during her April visit to Delhi. India also stands to gain by backing Hasina's proposal for the Ganges Barrage, downstream in Bangladesh's Rajbari district on Padma river.

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina has supported India in its endeavours on terrorism in recent past. (Photo: Reuters)

Why is it Payback Time for India

Hasina has crushed all northeast Indian rebel bases in Bangladesh, handed over the arrested leaders to India, and cleared use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports for connecting the northeast from the Indian mainland. Her government has set the stage for transit facilities to India, something that is a major boost for Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy.

Hasina had backed Modi’s boycott of the SAARC summit in Islamabad and helped him isolate Pakistan. Now India wants a long-term defence cooperation pact with Bangladesh, possibly to ensure that Dhaka does not tilt too far towards Beijing in its military ties.

If Hasina is not playing ball, and her diplomats are offering to downgrade the pact to an MoU on defence cooperation, it is only because Hasina does not want to be seen back home as having given India too much, and in return, received too little. That kind of an impression is dangerous for any leader, including Hasina, in the run-up to the elections in Bangladesh.

Also Read: India will Soon Approve Teesta Water Pact: Rajnath Singh

But if Modi overlooks the opposition of Mamata Banerjee and signs the Teesta water sharing deal, Hasina may well reconsider the defence treaty. It also remains to be seen whether Modi also backs, and partly funds, the Ganges Barrage that Hasina is keen upon.

Delhi Should Keep Dhaka in Good Spirits

Bangladesh's junior water resources minister Nazrul Islam told me recently that two Chinese banks were ready to fund the $3 billion Ganges barrage, but Hasina wants India – and Japan – to fund it because the river flows out of India.

India must come up with a just deal to a lower riparian – and a friendly neighbour – like Bangladesh, if it wishes to make a case against China, as and when the northern neighbour is found coming up with unacceptable upstream projects on the Brahmaputra.

After all, the Brahmaputra flows into India from China, and into Bangladesh from India.

If China diverts it in Tibet towards the Gobi desert – a long time proposal once endorsed by former President Hu Jintao – India will need Bangladesh to put global and regional pressure on Beijing.

Bangladesh is crucial for the success of India's ‘Look East policy, which cannot take off unless Dhaka plays ball on the connectivity issues.

It holds the key to the security of Northeast India – something that prompted Indira Gandhi to back Bangladesh's independence.

Why Modi Should Go Ahead with Teesta Pact

  • By signing the Teesta and Ganges barrage deals, Modi would cause split in the Opposition, as Congress and Left won’t be able to back Mamata.
  • Warming up to Hasina will push the defence cooperation treaty with Bangladesh that is in India’s interest.
  • With Bangladesh addressing the security and connectivity issues, Modi’s ‘Look East’ or ‘Act East’ will be deemed successful.
Teesta deal will give a boost to PM Modi’s ‘Look East’ policy. (Photo: iStock)

Tackling Domestic Opposition on Teesta

A group of BJP leaders in the East, especially former Bengal BJP president (and now Tripura governor) Tathagata Roy, have stridently pitched for Bangladesh's rights as a lower riparian state.

According to these leaders, Modi should consider signing up the Teesta and Ganges barrage deals, even if Mamata Banerjee doesn’t cooperate.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, impressed by Dhaka’s counter-terrorism commitment and the evident lack of it in West Bengal, is keen to ensure Bangladesh stays close to India, and does not drift much towards China.

BJP has nothing to lose and can gain a lot by signing the Teesta pact, even at Mamata’s expense. (Photo: The Quint)

Many of Modi's close advisors are keen to oblige Hasina, regardless of Mamata.

Now that the results of five states have been announced and the BJP has swept UP and Uttarakhand, it is being hoped that Modi makes one last offer to Mamata and then goes ahead even if she opposes the water deals with Dhaka.

"We have nothing to lose and everything to gain," says a top BJP leader in Bengal," by backing the deals with Bangladesh."

He pointed out that if Modi signed the Teesta and Ganges Barrage deals during Hasina's visit , Mamata Banerjee would be isolated completely.

"The Congress can't oppose it because it was Manmohan who had gone to Dhaka with the Teesta draft in 2010. The Left can’t oppose it because they backed the deals," the BJP leader said .

In one bold stroke, Modi can strike at the very Opposition unity, occupying centre stage post demonetisation. Now that the BJP has won UP and Uttarkhand, Modi could care less.

What if Mamata Plays the Spoilsport?

If a bold move like demonetisation could not dent the 'Modi factor' and the BJP has been rewarded for his bravery and risk-taking abilities, then that momentum can be augmented if the Prime Minister now takes on Mamata and signs the water deals with Hasina.

What if Mamata responded with a huge mass protest in West Bengal!

The BJP leaders say she is responsible for running the state and any inconvenience caused by mass protests would go against her .

And if there is mass public disorder, it will provide a good enough cause for intervention – the kind of treatment meted out to Mamata by top BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargia,  after her cadres had attacked BJP state party office in Calcutta after TMC MP Sudip Bandopadhyay’s arrest by the CBI.

BJP leaders like Vijayvargia and Siddhartha Nath Singh, Tathagata Roy and Rahul Sinha have continuously attacked Mamata as the 'patron-queen of jihadis' ever since the Khagragarh blast exposed the growing tentacles of Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in West Bengal.

They have pointed out how the state rolls out red carpet for the Pakistani envoys and continues to remain hostile towards Bangladesh. This comes at a time when Hasina's government is fighting against Islamist radicalism and sending Jamaat leaders to the gallows.

Also Read: Not Just Balochistan, India Should Rake up Bangladesh as Well

(Photo: Reuters)

Accomplishing Task Left Unfinished by Manmohan

The water deals with Bangladesh will also boost Hasina's chances of returning to power in the next Bangladesh polls – something that Delhi desperately wants. In any case, India is committed to sign the deals. Manmohan had carried the Teesta draft to Dhaka in 2010. Not abiding by the commitment now will make India look untrustworthy in the eyes of its neighbours.

Modi's image as a brave leader, unlike his predecessor Manmohan, whom he would often berate as too servile to the Gandhi family, will take a beating if he cannot do what Manmohan could not.

(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and an author. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: Dhaka Requiem: From Stories of Liberation to a Dirge for the Dead