Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit this weekend will be her first bilateral visit in seven years. The two sides are expected to announce a slew of agreements on connectivity, energy and trade, but former High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India Tariq Karim, who remains a key interlocutor in the subcontinent, says the focus remains on the Teesta agreement. The landmark water-sharing deal has remained unresolved, mainly due to differences between the West Bengal and Central governments.
You were High Commissioner when PM Hasina last came to Delhi for a bilateral visit in 2010. Seven years later, how do you assess the possible outcomes of this visit?
You will remember that even in her last visit, Sheikh Hasina had taken a full year after being elected before coming to Delhi. Even then, when we were asked about scheduling it, I said let’s do the visit when we have something concrete for both sides coming out of it. That visit reconfigured our relationship, set our ties on a new path. It was a game changer. The PMs then laid out a road map, and by the time Manmohan Singh returned the visit, many of the announcements had been acted upon. It’s another matter that many of the agreements set out by the UPA could not be operationalised until the Modi government took over, because they lost the political mandate. But the vision was there all along. PM Modi was able to cash in on this, and he was able to go ahead with it. His visit in 2015 was a natural culmination, and since we had achieved the land boundary [agreement], connectivity, all that was remaining was the Teesta agreement, and he set the course for the future of the ties again.
Why has the Teesta agreement still evaded resolution?
Well, in the past there was an institutional framework at the highest level, where PM [Hasina’s] Adviser [Gowher Rizvi] would meet the NSA [Shivshankar Menon] once a month, and they would assess what had been done, what hadn’t. I wish they had continued that arrangement. Bureaucracies, left to themselves, have short attention spans, and distractions come in. Let’s also remember that Sheikh Hasina is now in the second half of her second term as PM. And that’s problematic for any leader in any government in any part of the world. If you go to Bangladesh, even when I speak of the more than 100 agreements, 90-plus of them delivered, 50 more in the pipeline, they only ask, “Why has Teesta not been done?”
In a 2014 interview, you called Teesta one of the litmus tests of the relationship. Why is it so?
It’s a legacy of our past. If we could get past Teesta, we can move to the larger vision of basin management for all the 54 rivers we share. Sheikh Hasina would rather not speak of “partitioning” or sharing rivers, but their management. You can partition land, but can you partition water or the ecology around it? We have made ourselves hostage to the post-colonial neo-Westphalian order that came up after the Second World War. We overzealously worry about guarding our nationality, that it sometimes stops us from doing the right thing which transcends national borders. Teesta is now an emotive issue like that.
Given that, how hard will it be for PM Hasina to go back without it?
Politically, it will be very difficult, very difficult. Teesta is the one thing the opposition uses to hit her with. They ask if PM Hasina is such a good friend of India, has a good relationship with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, why can’t she get this agreement done? So if she has come after seven years, there must be something she can take back. Look, if Teesta is taken out of the equation as a problem, then India and Bangladesh have no quarrels left. Teesta could have been done in 2011, as we had the agreement: a road map on how to ensure the river doesn’t die. Both sides agreed then that we must let the river flow, maintain a minimum level and share whatever is above it half and half. This was initialled, and all that was left was the signing.
Why couldn’t it be done between New Delhi and Dhaka then?
Well, this is where India’s principle of ‘cooperative federalism’ comes in, that you can’t do this by an executive order without the concurrence of the State of West Bengal. My question is if the larger national interest can be trumped by this mantra of cooperative federalism, then why can’t the principle of collaborative sub-regionalism trump cooperative federalism? Expand your horizons, because the dividends are so huge they will eclipse all your concerns.
Given that the issues between the West Bengal CM and the Centre seem unresolved, what are some of the other options for the governments to go forward?
One way of managing this visit is to look at what else Sheikh Hasina can take back. Bangladesh wants two things: water security and energy security. If, for example, on the Ganges barrage, India says it will help Bangladesh, then that is something. The Ganges barrage has always been held up because we didn’t have the money, and the donors would not fund it until India and Bangladesh have a treaty that can assure a certain amount of water will flow in. The political coalitions of the time ensured that couldn’t happen. If [the Ganges barrage]can be done during this visit, Sheikh Hasina can go back to Dhaka and say this was her father’s [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] dream. He inherited the Farakka barrage, but always wanted to build the Ganges barrage. So if she can say this is done, and we move to the basin management treaty, the narrative will divert to more productive engagements.
You mentioned many alternatives. Ms. Hasina’s adviser even suggested bringing China, as an upper riparian state, into the discussions. Isn’t that a red flag?
Well, India would not accept it. Frankly, China may not listen to us either. But regardless of what it does, what it builds on its part of the rivers, 70% still flows into India and Bangladesh. So we must consider how to optimise that between us, as even at present 60% of our flows just goes right into the sea. We should do what we can, and wait for the obstacles to be ironed out. After all, we did this with SAARC, where we agreed to go ahead with the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India Nepal) subgrouping on connectivity.
Connectivity is the area of greatest focus during the visit. India is expected to extend a large line of credit, and both sides will announce a list of railways, roadways to be developed. Yet, in Bangladesh there is a comparison with what China has already promised, which is larger in money terms, and is part of its Belt and Road initiative. Should India worry about the Chinese influence in Bangladesh?
Well, why does India want connectivity? So it can travel to parts of Bangladesh. The roads that Bangladesh has are not of international standard. The British had built a series of river channels, but we have lost that. And they built railways, but they couldn’t cross the big rivers. Now, because of investment and modern technology we have the Jamuna bridge [built in 1998 by a Korean company with Japanese funding], and we are going to have the Padma bridge [being built by a Chinese company]. To build all these, we need investment. India has lofty ideals and goals, but doesn’t always have the money to match them. Bangladesh wants to soar in GDP terms, PM Hasina wants to build seven SEZs. We can’t have those without roads and power. During this visit, you may also see Bhutan and India cooperating with Bangladesh on providing power. We could also work on rebuilding inland waterways sub-regionally. If China is coming to invest in infrastructure in Bangladesh, then our friends in India can use those same roads to travel east too. China too needs Indian roads [through the Northeast]to come into Bangladesh. So, I don’t think these concerns are justified.
Just as India may overplay the China threat, doesn’t Bangladesh overplay the India threat? Ahead of the visit, India has been keen to negotiate a defence pact, but opposition to it in Bangladesh means it will be an MoU for the moment, say officials. Why the hesitation?
Mindsets are difficult to shatter. It’s easier for people to tear down the Bastille walls, but very difficult to tear down the Bastilles in our minds. We have to overcome this legacy. In 1978, Gen Zia-ur Rahman signed agreements with China for cooperation, and that allowed China to become the dominant partner in the military sphere. Sheikh Hasina also realises that she has to tread this particular water carefully. Right now [India-Bangladesh defence cooperation] is not institutionalised, but we have many exchanges. We also have institutionalised the Home Ministers’ meeting, so that we can manage our borders better. I hope we can move on defence as well, maybe an MoU to start with. If you rush too much, there will be a backlash. You have to shape the political opinion, and enable Sheikh Hasina to wean away from the overdependence on China, and diversify Bangladesh’s options. But we should not make the defence cooperation the focus of this visit.
But why is this the mindset at all? In March, for example, PM Hasina spoke on a radio show, blaming Indian intelligence agencies for interfering in Bangladeshi politics, in the 2001 elections which she lost. Why does this impression persist?
It’s politics, very simply. And political survival. Sheikh Hasina is telling the opposition [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] that she is not a stooge of India, that she is able to stand up and tell India what it did (in 2001) was wrong. In our part of the world, machismo still counts in leadership.
But New Delhi has backed the Hasina government 100%, whether it was on the 2014 elections, the war crimes tribunal and hanging of those convicted, that other countries haven’t. Today the government is willing to support Bangladesh’s demand for a World Genocide Day on March 25. Why does it still face this anti-India feeling?
Well there have been questions about the 2001 election in Bangladesh. I think we have to face that. And there is also the political rivalry between the Awami League and the BNP, sometimes called the “Battle of the Begums”, that fuels this perception on India. But the truth is, it is changing. In recent years, we have seen so many delegations from the opposition BNP also coming to India, meeting people and meeting with Indian leaders and officials. So I think the perceptions on India are changing, there is more bipartisan consensus on India, but the process is ongoing and may take some more time.