A major foreign policy disaster was averted this week when Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to push ahead with the crucial Bangladesh border agreement without excluding Assam from its purview as the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party had demanded for partisan political reasons.
Worried about how a deal which will lead to the exchange of small pockets of land with Bangladesh would play out electorally when Assam goes to the polls next year, the Modi government had initially decided to unilaterally amend the agreement which India had signed in 2013. Not surprisingly, the cabinet’s decision to keep the state out led to consternation in Dhaka. Over the past six years, Sheikh Hasina has gone the extra mile to address New Delhi’s concerns over the activities of Indian insurgent groups. She has also made it much more difficult for Pakistan’s ISI to use Bangladesh as a base for terrorism and financial subversion aimed against India. In exchange, she expected India to accommodate her country’s concerns over the unsettled land boundary, the sharing of the Teesta river waters and the demarcation of the maritime boundary between the two countries.
The Teesta deal which the Manmohan Singh government had signed was stalled by Mamata Banerjee in 2013. The land agreement too floundered in the face of the withering attack the BJP mounted while in opposition, with Arun Jaitley declaring that the handing over of even one square inch of Indian territory would be a violation of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.
The logjam began to clear after Modi became PM. In August 2014, India welcomed the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the maritime boundary even though its award was more generous towards Bangladesh. And then in November, Modi reversed the BJP’s stand on the land deal by declaring it to be in India’s interest and committing himself to its implementation.
If Modi’s U-turn last year was meant to send a signal that the national interest had to be placed above party political interests, the BJP in Assam clearly didn’t get the memo. Nor indeed did the Union Cabinet, which, inexplicably, backed the state’s exclusion last week. The fact that the decision came on the eve of Modi’s visit to China gave rise to an awkward question: How could the PM ever find the political courage to strike a deal with the Chinese involving some give-and-take on the Sino-Indian boundary if he lacked the nerve to implement a simple agreement with Bangladesh?
In the end, fortunately, sanity prevailed. Thanks to some rearguard action by the chief minister of Assam and the ministry of external affairs, Modi agreed to re-examine the issue and eventually ensured the passage in Parliament of the original, unamended agreement.
This near-miss holds two lessons for the future course of Indian diplomacy in the region. The first is that Bangladesh matters more than most Indians imagine and that if India seriously invests in the relationship, the strategic and economic benefits for both countries can be enormous. Now that the border agreement is ready for implementation, it is essential that the Teesta deal also be pushed through. There are signs of Mamata relenting but if the BJP in West Bengal, which nurtures ambitions of coming to power in the state, decides to play spoiler, that agreement will continue to be stalled. As Modi prepares to discuss China’s plans for harnessing the waters of the Yarling Tsangpo before it enters India as the Brahmaputra, it’s essential that New Delhi and Dhaka evolve a common position on their rights as lower riparians. This, in turn, presupposes India’s willingness to act as a responsible upper riparian when it comes to dealing with Bangladeshi concerns about the Teesta and other rivers.
The second lesson is that narrow ideological and political agendas must not be allowed to shrink India’s diplomatic options. The RSS and BJP might well have taken the position during the Manmohan Singh years that there should be no dialogue with Pakistan but Modi as PM was wise enough to recognize the merits of diplomacy. Despite the huge mandate he enjoys, however, Modi has allowed himself to be spooked by the jingoism of the Indian media, and indeed of the opposition. His on again, off-again diplomacy with Pakistan betrays a certain lack of confidence on his part, almost as if he is concerned about the political cost of resuming the welcome initiative he took right after he came to power of engaging with Nawaz Sharif. Modi showed courage in finally doing the right thing with Bangladesh. It’s time to do the same with Pakistan now.