A very wise man had said, “To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.” To that one might add -- to repeat the old words on a longstanding but pressing issue without committing anything is the full art of diplomacy. Never has one heard so little being said in so many words as was by the visiting Indian Prime Minister during the two occasions he had to address the people of Bangladesh during his short visit to our country.
There were deals galore, but of real substance only a few. Of the 22 deals and MOUs signed, the ones we were looking forward to very eagerly were the Teesta and the LBA.
Everybody in Bangladesh was ecstatic with the LBA which was long overdue and one can say with certainty that were the Awami League not in power, the LBA in its final form may have taken many more years to come our way. Equally true is the fact that had there not been a strong government in the centre, and without Mr. Modi's persuasive power with the other direct stake holders in India, the conclusion of the long outstanding issue would not have eventuated even now.
The Teesta deal, scuttled by Mamata's obduracy in 2011, continues to remain hostage to the politics of Paschim Banga in spite of what Mr. Modi would have us believe -- that river waters are not matter of politics. And when he said at the very fag end of the speech on June 6 that he was confident, “with the support of the state governments in India, we can reach a fair solution on Teesta and Feni Rivers”, he was only reaffirming our worry.
One had taken heart from the fact that Mamata would be a part of the Modi delegation. And although that was conditional on the Teesta not being on the agenda of talks, we were hoping that Mr. Modi might spring a surprise. Mamata's condition was met in full. The Bangladesh Prime Minister made no direct reference to Teesta, but only to the sharing of all the 54 common rivers. It is surprising that an issue whose framework for solution had been all but worked out in 2011 before the visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh, and which did not happen due to the intransigence of one person, should merit only a passing reference in the comments of the two prime ministers. But then quite a few of our talk-show masters had warned us not to be so selective but be more open minded, suggesting that we should, for the time being, remain happy with the LBA and with the bright prospect that connectivity has in store for us.
Teesta will happen, as our Foreign Affairs Advisor and other optimists aver, when that might be is the question. But only Mamata, whose stunts we are not new to, has the key to the problem. “Our rivers should nurture our relationship, not become a source of discord” are very rhapsodic thoughts that Mr. Modi had expressed; and he wants us to have faith in him. Given the experience with LBA, we have to be optimist because, “It does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”
Connectivity is a euphemism for transit and transshipment. It will certainly help integrate the region, but for India the main compulsion was of surface links, shorter and less hazardous, with its northeast. And if Bangladesh is India-locked it cannot be lost upon India that the Indian northeast is Bangladesh-locked. India's foreign policy is driven by its national interest, as it should be, the most important adjunct of which is its national security. Without a prosperous and developed northeast, the simmering problems will continue to fester. And development can be enhanced by speedy movement of goods between the western and eastern parts of India. And that movement through Bangladesh remains the only shorter and cheaper option. The same logic applies to the use of the two ports of Bangladesh. An agreement in this regard was to have been signed in 2011 but for the aborted Teesta deal. But this time we have given the use of ports without Teesta.
Nobody can contest that India should be afforded these facilities, because a developed Seven Sisters will ultimately be to our benefit. The question is, these being our strategic assets, what economic advantage can we derive from allowing India the benefits of roads and port facilities, apart from the fact that it will reduce freight charges (for goods coming in to Bangladesh through ports, but most of the trade between the two countries occurs through land)?
Apart from the earnings from the use of our facilities, what is equally important is whether Bangladesh will be adequately compensated for the loss of its exports to the Indian northeast which will be caused by the transit and transshipment facility offered to India. Coastal shipping may boost bilateral trade but will it help offset the trade imbalance? Allowing use of our infrastructure is one way of offsetting our huge trade deficit with India, if appropriate charges are levied for the use of those facilities. Surely India can share a part of its savings that will accrue from avoiding the long and tortuous route that will be reduced to third of its present distance, between its western and eastern parts.
It is for the economic security of the northeast that India has sought and got what it had wanted from Bangladesh and thus achieved one of its strategic objectives. The question is, how much have we ensured that our long term economic and strategic interests are met?
What we have so far witnessed is India asserting its self-interest only in any bilateral negotiation. We hope that in future this approach will give way to the policy of enlightened self-interest in dealing with its neighbours.
The writer is Editor, Op-Ed and Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.