There is little question of the pre-eminence Mamata Banerjee holds in Indian national politics, a place she has earned over the years through, first, her active role in the Indian National Congress and then in her own Trinamul Congress. She was a leading voice of dissent in West Bengal (recently renamed Paschimbanga) until she ran the Left Front out of power in the state in May this year. Equally significant has been her role in two union governments, in which she has served as minister for railways both times. Her present role as a crucial coalition partner in the UPA government in Delhi is a reality the powers that be in India do not ignore, for reasons which are only too obvious.
It was therefore only natural for everyone in Bangladesh to have been enthused by the thought that Mamata Banerjee would be on the team Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would lead to the talks with the Bangladesh government in Dhaka. As chief minister of a state with which Bengalis on this side of the political frontier have shared culture, indeed heritage and for a long time a state of unified politics (until the vivisection of the subcontinent in 1947), she certainly could have looked forward to a warm welcome from us. Now that she has decided not to be in Bangladesh with her nation’s prime minister, we are truly saddened and genuinely surprised.
Our surprise is there because her refusal to be in Dhaka has given a sudden battering to our expectations. Where we had expected that Ms. Banerjee would play a major role in ensuring that the people of Bangladesh and the people of Paschimbanga shared the waters of the Teesta, as they have shared so many things throughout their long association in history, we are now left handling a situation where we must scramble to undo some of the damage she may have done to the future of India-Bangladesh relations. Clearly, the chief minister is unhappy at the way the Manmohan Singh government has been conducting negotiations with the Bangladesh government, with the probable terms of the deals Delhi and Dhaka mean to reach on key issues of common interest. By opting out of the trip to Dhaka, she has likely pushed back an opportunity for Bangladesh and India to inaugurate a new, more mutually beneficial relationship between each other.
We understand that Mamata Banerjee is miffed at the union government’s failure to take her on board as it has sought to hammer out a deal with the Bangladesh government. The government, she has reasons to feel, would not have dealt with a Left Front administration (had it been in office) the way it has dealt with hers. She puts it across to people that the Indian prime minister has kept her in the dark about the negotiations in Dhaka. That, again, is rather a far-fetched idea, seeing that it would be politically naïve, even suicidal, on the part of the Delhi authorities to ignore a critical state, one with which Bangladesh shares much more than rivers and a border, as they go into hammering out a deal with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government. The extent to which Ms. Banerjee’s feelings may have been misplaced is borne out by the fact that the union government kept her fully apprised of what it meant to do in Dhaka. Senior government functionaries were in touch with her three times and kept her posted on the details of the draft agreements to be discussed with the Bangladesh authorities. That only upholds the collegial attitude the Manmohan Singh administration has adopted in governance. Where the Trinamul is concerned, the prime minister has been particularly careful, especially since he needs the Banerjee government’s support on any deal with Bangladesh over the Teesta waters and especially again because the Trinamul Congress happens to be a key element in the ruling coalition in Delhi.
The question, ours, is then simple: given the facts, why did the Paschimbanga chief minister pour cold water, in that clichéd manner of speaking, on a bright new promise that looked about to open up a shining new dawn for the people of Bangladesh and India? That matters had been discussed with her, that the political system India is governed by affords little room for the centre to bypass state governments on anything of either a domestic or international nature, is a truth that does not come into question. And yet Mamata Banerjee, clearly for reasons that she has not spelt out, reasons we suspect have to do with domestic Trinamul politics in her state, has now pushed the entire gamut of Delhi-Dhaka negotiations into a bad state of uncertainty. We cannot but reflect on whether Jyoti Basu or Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would do what Mamata Banerjee has done. Basu remains a hugely loved figure in Bangladesh. Bhattacharjee has always been aware of the historicity of the links which have consistently kept the two Bengals in a state of firm bonding.
Our disappointment at Mamata Banerjee’s withdrawal from the negotiations in Dhaka is deep. Even so, we keep hope going — that Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina will yet strike a deal which will reinforce the links between their countries, that they will give a new meaning to history through injecting new substance and impetus into its various and varied contours.