STRANGER THAN FICTION: Can Mamata really deliver?

Taj Hashmi

THE brouhaha in Bangladesh about Mamata Banerjee’s recent visit is astounding. The widest possible media coverage of what Ms. Banerjee “assured” Bangladesh about its due share of the Teesta water — in the most condescending manner — is unbelievable. Seemingly, many politicians and media outlets in Bangladesh believe that — thanks to the assurances from the chief minister of Paschimbanga– issues dogging Indo-Bangladesh relationship will be over soon. One wonders, why Bangladeshis who are deluding themselves into believing something unreal are not asking the question: Who is Mamata Banerjee, anyway?

They should also be asking themselves the questions: (a) can she influence India’s foreign policy toward Bangladesh, only because she is a Bangali? (a) Why will she go all the way to help Bangladesh unlike what she did in the recent past? (c) Will she be able to modify India’s policy toward Bangladesh, which even Prime Minister Modi won’t be able to change overnight? And we know the answers to the questions, which are all in the negative.

One can’t agree more with Ziauddin Choudhury that some people and sections of the media in Bangladesh gave people a wrong impression that Ms. Banerjee had the power to resolve all bilateral problems between India and Bangladesh (“Hype over Mamata Banerjee visit”, D.S. Feb 25, 2015): “The visit was all sweet, warm and full of bonhomie on both sides, but it yielded precious little because of misplaced reliance by Bangladeshis on a single person who has little control over settling issues between the two sovereign countries…. She has as much authority to seal an international deal with Bangladesh as, say, the Governor of California signing a nuclear agreement on behalf of USA with India” [emphasis added].

It’s time that Bangladeshis learn that a chief minister from an Indian province — even if she/he is a Bangali from West Bengal — doesn’t decide what the government of India should or shouldn’t do with regard to India’s foreign policy, including India’s relations with Bangladesh

Visits by Bangla-speaking dignitaries from India — politicians, writers, actors and artists — over-enthuse and overcharge some Bangladeshis.  So much so that some Indian visitors get away with emotionally charged wishful thinking of re-uniting the two Bengals, dissected in 1947.  This is what a Paschimbanga film actor — who accompanied Ms. Banerjee to Bangladesh — stated in Dhaka, to the surprise of this writer.

The average Bangladeshis tend to believe in whatever Ms. Banerjee promised to Bangladesh with regard to the free flow of the Teesta waters and settlement of other problems between the two neighbours. Most Bangladeshis seem to have reposed enough trust in her promises, without even questioning (a) as to what was her “technical problem” in the first place to resolve the Teesta water sharing dispute between India and Bangladesh on the eve of Manmohan Singh’s trip to Bangladesh in 2011; (b) if she can play the decisive role in changing India’s traditional foreign policy towards its smaller neighbours, which has been not-so-benign.

Mamata’s “technical problem,” as this writer understands, is defending Paschimbanga’s (undue) interests to the detriment of Bangladesh vis-à-vis the Teesta waters. So, we have no reasons to believe that all of a sudden her “technical problem” will disappear, and that after all these years — only because of Mamata Banerjee’s presumed “mamata” (compassion) for fellow Bangla-speaking people in Bangladesh — India is going to become a gentle giant to its smaller neighbour, Bangladesh. Fat hope!

The people and politicians in Bangladesh must have some understanding of realpolitik. They must realise, due to the Farakka Barrage, the desertification of northwestern Bangladesh is no longer a distant possibility; the Gazaldoba Barrage across the Teesta, and the Tipaimukh Dam across the Barak will eventually pose similar threat to greater Rangpur and greater Sylhet, respectively. Conceding transit rights to India by Bangladesh on “humanitarian grounds” (without any discussion in the Bangladesh Parliament), and taking no action against thousands of Indian nationals who work in Bangladesh without work permits and remit more than $2 billion to India every year, are not signs of good diplomacy. Last but not least, leaning backward to please India won’t do any good to Bangladesh in the long run.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh must learn what self-confident, bold and independent diplomacy is all about from the examples of Sri Lanka, Singapore, New Zealand and Cuba, for example, who have developed the art of living independently beside bigger neighbours, and even a super power like United States. What Fidel Castro, Lee Kuan Yew and David Lange could achieve for their countries can be replicated by Bangladesh too. One may mention New Zealand’s former Prime Minister David Lange, known as the “roaring mouse,” in this regard. In 1985, his government refused to allow nuclear-armed US ships into New Zealand waters, a policy the tiny country continues to this day, to the dislike of America and Australia.

In sum, it’s time not to waste time in paying heed to what an Indian chief minister, or even the prime minister promises to Bangladesh, as we know the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. Sage has recently published his latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan

Source: The Daily Star