Will India and Bangladesh quickly sign the Teesta River water-sharing agreement now that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee— who single-handedly forced New Delhi to put the pact on hold since September 2011 much to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's embarrassment— has publicly pledged to stand by the central government in external affairs matters?
Dhaka's eagerness to seal the deal— envisaging 50:50 sharing of Teesta waters— is pretty obvious. But a highly-placed source told Outlook that New Delhi is in no hurry. "We are weighing our options after Mamata withdrew the caveat", said the source, adding: "Frankly there is no rush; it might be prudent to sign the stalled treaty in 2014 after elections in Bangladesh and India are over." His rationale is that India should ink the pact with the Begum who wins the Sheikh Hasina-Khaleda Zia poll battle to curry favour with the next regime in Bangladesh rather than sign it hurriedly with the pro-India Awami League government whose re-election prospects are uncertain because of corruption charges.
Mamata scuttled the Teesta deal, which was ready for signing during Dr Singh's September 2011 state visit to Dhaka, insisting that it would rob West Bengal farmers of water. She appointed a commission headed by geomorphologist Kalyan Rudra to find an equitable, bilateral water-sharing formula. Even as Mamata ostensibly gave the central government the go-ahead to conclude the deal, Kalyan's findings are still shrouded in secrecy. "Everything about the commission is classified, including its scope and findings. I have been forbidden by PMO and CMO to talk to the media. I'm sworn to secrecy; my lips are sealed", Rudra told Outlook after Mamata's climbdown.
Saugata Roy, Trinamool Congress MP and former union minister, confirmed that Kalyan Rudra's report is with Mamata. "He (Rudra) has proposed a water-sharing formula besides recommending measures for recharging ground water", said Saugata without elaborating. But Mukul Roy, ex-railway minister, added: "Our CM has tweeted about Centre's power to conduct foreign policy in general. But it doesn't mean that we won't stand up for West Bengal. We are a federal nation and the Trinamool Congress is there to uphold Bengal's interests." Coming from Mukul Roy, who is perceived as Mamata's alter ego, the remarks reveal that the central government can't take Mamata for granted despite her apparent climbdown.
Bangladeshi desperation to conclude the Teesta agreement is evident from the disclosure made by a key advisor of Sheikh Hasina to Outlook in Dhaka during President Pranab Mukherjee's visit. The advisor revealed that Dhaka was willing to sign the agreement even if New Delhi assured Bangladesh of as little as 25 percent of Teesta water flowing from Gajoldoba barrage in north Bengal. He said: "Does Mamatadi know that we have given our consent for so little after an eight hour meeting with India's NSA? What the agreement will guarantee us is less than what we are getting now. But we want an agreement because we want to tell our people that India can't starve us of water in future because we have signed a treaty."
The advisor added: "We have been extremely sensitive to India's needs and we have the highest expectations from India. Our PM is keen to visit India. But in an election year a Bangladeshi premier cannot go to India before the Teesta and land boundary agreements are signed. Happily for us, India's President who is respected in Bangladesh as much as he is respected in India, has affectionately assured us that India is fully committed to signing both pending agreements."
While the Teesta agreement's fate is unclear, foreign minister Salman Khurshid has cleared the decks for the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh by quietly winning over the BJP. Sources say the Constitution (119th) Amendment Bill, 2013, is likely to be passed in the second half of the budget session, removing legal hurdles in the path of swapping 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India for 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, which would mean handing over 10,000 acres of Indian territory to Bangladesh on a platter. Getting the BJP on board was crucial because a constitution amendment bill requires a two-third majority in both houses. Asom Gano Parishad, with just two Rajya Sabha MPs, has thrown a tantrum but it doesn't matter.