Sheikh Hasina's India visit: Mamata’s River Teesta stance reflects drawbacks of federalising foreign policy

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India on Friday has met with serious apprehensions, with the proposed water sharing agreement of the Teesta river between the two countries at the heart of the unease.

An agreement to this effect was all but concluded back in 2011, during the visit of the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Bangladesh. It, however, was scuttled just a week before Singh’s trip by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, to the great embarrassment of both New Delhi and Dhaka. This then raises a pertinent question: Will things be different this time around?

Optimists believe that when the three Bengalis – President Pranab Mukherjee, Hasina and Mamata – meet over dinner (hosted by the President) along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 9 April, the elusive pact on River Teesta may finally be put back on course. But, no signals to that effect have emerged so far from Mamata's side.

Be that as it may, the Teesta issue has become all the more complex, given the strength of two major trends in India’s external behaviours – "water nationalism" and the growing  "federalisation" of Indian foreign policy.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Reuters

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Reuters

It may be noted that the centuries-old water systems of the Indian subcontinent got fractured when the country was partitioned in 1947. As a result, many rivers became "shared rivers", leading to differences among the countries in the region over the quantum of the shares.

The resulting "water conflicts" were further accentuated by the emerging political conflicts. In the process, issues such as supply-demand gaps and climate change also cropped up.

The Indian subcontinent suffers from "water stress", as nearly 1.3 billion people depend on very few river systems. The per-capita water availability in India at present is 1,631 cubic metre; the corresponding figures in Pakistan and Bangladesh being 1,000 and 7,320 respectively.

It is estimated that by 2030, these figures will be 1,240 in India, 877 in Pakistan and 5,700 in Bangladesh. In other words, while all the three countries will have lesser water than what they have today – a prospect that is hardening the negotiating postures of the decision-makers in all the three countries – the interesting aspect is that of the three, it is Bangladesh which is and will be in a comparatively advantageous position.

But, that should not detract from the fact that the 'shared rivers' are increasingly becoming sovereign issues and are being manifested as the phenomena of "water nationalism".

The other major trend is the growing "federalisation" of Indian foreign policy. Constitutionally speaking, foreign-policy is a subject that is the exclusive domain of the central government in India’s federal arrangement. The primary institutions for framing and implementing foreign policy are the external affairs minister, the bureaucracy attached to the ministry of external affairs, the prime minister and his office.

It is the Centre that can declare war; conduct relations with foreign nations and international organisations; appoint and receive diplomatic and consular officials; conclude, ratify, and implement treaties; and acquire or cede territory.

No wonder why soon after Independence, all major treaties that India had entered into with other countries – the Indo-Bhutanese Treaty of 1949, the Nehru-Liaquat Agreement of 1950, the Indo-Nepalese Treaty of 1951, the India-China Agreement of 1954, the Tashkent Agreement of 1965, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1972, the Simla Agreement of 1972 and the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 – were never discussed or debated in Parliament in advance, let alone state governments being briefed about them.

Even after the treaties were concluded, the parliamentarians, in the absence of any mandatory requirement of the Parliament's approval for their ratification, have been helpless in modifying the texts.

However, things are now changing, particularly in the "border states". Leaders here have forced the central government to include the concerns of the states’ people in dealings with the neighbouring country. Foreign policy is thus being conditioned accordingly and getting "federalised".

India borders Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives. In effect, what this means is that any development in each of these countries has its fallout on the contiguous Indian states. India-Pakistan relations thus affect Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir; India-China relations affect Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh; India-Nepal relations  spill over to Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim and West Bengal; India-Bhutan relations impinge upon West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam; India-Myanmar relations will have an impact on Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram; India-Bangladesh relations have implications for West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Assam; India-Sri Lanka relations are closely intertwined with the politics of Tamil Nadu; and India-Maldives relations will have its impact on Minicoy Islands.

It so happens that most of the important regional parties that happen to govern the border states have important concerns with the neighbouring countries, that are different from the concerns seen from New Delhi. See the way Jammu and Kashmir looks at Pakistan, West Bengal looks at Bangladesh, and Tamil Nadu looks at Sri Lanka.

Another significant development that is making these states' chief ministers partner with the central government in foreign policy is the phenomenon of globalisation, marked by economic liberalisation. As it is, the scope of the foreign policy of India has expanded to include economic, social, cultural and environmental issues.

There is now a setting in which states can play a key role in foreign economic policy, by seeking foreign direct investments and promoting foreign trade.

No wonder why we see these days chief ministers of West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Maharashtra, Punjab, and Delhi making regular official visits of foreign countries to solicit foreign investment. He or she participates in negotiations with foreign investors directly.

Paradoxically, this federalising trend got a huge boost when Modi became prime minister. Despite being widely perceived to be an authoritarian in his working style, Modi, soon after assuming office, promised to work with India’s chief ministers in resolving the country’s myriad problems, including those in the areas of foreign policy.

It may be noted here that while delivering the Nani Palkhivala memorial lecture at a function organised in Chennai in October 2013, by the Palkhivala Foundation, Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, had attacked Singh’s foreign policy as "a mockery" and "Delhi-centric".

He, instead, had advocated an assertive foreign policy that would also involve the states. "India is not just Delhi. The foreign policy should be decided by the people and not by some politicians sitting in Delhi," he had said, pointing out how his state, Gujarat, had entered into partnership with Japan and Canada.

Against this background, it will be interesting to see how Modi convinces Mamata to come on board with the "Begum" next door, on the water-sharing of Teesta so as to serve the people of West Bengal and Bangladesh. It is to the credit of both Modi and Mamata that despite the chilling relations between the BJP and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the two agreed on the issue of the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh last year. It is really heartening that after years of acrimony, India and Bangladesh have mutually settled their land and maritime borders. It will be in fitness of things, therefore, if they similarly settle the Teesta factor.

Overall, federalisation of foreign policy is a healthy phenomenon as long as it does not lead to policy-paralysis. Unfortunately, there have been growing tussles between the Centre and the states on instances such as sharing of water of international rivers, attracting foreign investments, be it in the fields of multi-band retail or nuclear projects (agreed upon to be set up in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu).

There is also the example of the uncertain future of the South Korean giant POSCO’s plan to build a $12 billion steel plant in the eastern state of Odisha – India’s largest foreign direct investment project – following the state government’s suspension of the land acquisition for this project, in the face of opposition from the people of this iron-ore rich region, who will be displaced because of the industrial project. All these examples prove how domestic politics in India can sweep aside the normal foreign policy process, making decisions and the follow-up unpredictable.

There is a clear case of the states not crossing a line to jeopardise the long-term national interests. Therefore, the West Bengal factor cannot be allowed to derail the overall direction of Indo-Bangladesh relations, that have vital dimensions of security, connectivity and environmental issues.

The West Bengal chief minister should display her "mamata" (positive concerns) towards the issue, so that the challenges of growing federalisation are converted to great opportunities for regionalism (collective endeavours towards collective good) of the subcontinent as a whole and beyond.

Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 10:01 AM

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