A Tale Of 2 Bengals: As “Islamic” Bangladesh Emerges India’s Key Ally, “Hindu” West Bengal Disrupts Modi’s Foreign Policy: OPED

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first challenge as he pursues his foreign policy vision during his third consecutive term at the office has come from the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee.

This challenge seems to reflect two major trends in India’s external behaviors of late—“water nationalism” and the growing “federalization” of Indian foreign policy. These trends may well limit Modi’s power, or for that matter, the power of any central or federal government in Delhi, to conclude international treaties or agreements with foreign countries.

Following Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s highly successful visit last week, the first by the head of a foreign country after Modi began his third innings, Banerjee, a powerful leader of the country’s opposition, has written a letter to the Indian Prime Minister indicating that New Delhi should not reach any water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh without taking into confidence the state government led by her.

“I am writing this letter in the context of the recent visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. It seems that water-sharing issues relating to the Ganges and Test rivers may have been discussed during the meeting. Such unilateral deliberations and discussions without consultation and the opinion of the state government is neither acceptable nor desirable,” Mamata Banerjee wrote.

“I came to understand that the Government of India is in the process of renewing the India-Bangladesh Farakka Treaty (1996), which is to expire in 2026. It is a treaty which delineates the sharing of water between Bangladesh and India and, as you are aware, has huge implications for the people of West Bengal”, she added, emphasizing that the people of Bengal are”worst sufferers” of such treaties.

In her letter, Banerjee, of course, noted how West Bengal shares a very close relationship with Bangladesh – geographically, culturally, and economically and how the state has cooperated with Dhaka on several issues in the past.

“Agreement on the exchange of India-Bangladesh enclaves, also known as the Chitmahals, Indo-Bangladesh Railway Line and Bus Services are some of the milestones of jointly working together with Bangladesh for the betterment of the economy in this region. However, water is very precious and is the lifeline of the people,” she wrote, adding, “We cannot compromise on such a sensitive issue.”

Incidentally, all the cooperative agreements between India and Bangladesh, including the sensitive exchange of enclaves in 2015, have taken place under the Modi government only. And Banerjee did support all these measures. But, water sharing is proving to be a difficult issue.

It may be noted that the centuries-old water systems of the Indian subcontinent got fractured when the country was partitioned in 1947. As a result, many rivers became “shared rivers,” leading to differences among the countries in the region over the quantum of the shares.

The ‘shared rivers’ are increasingly becoming sovereign issues and manifesting as the phenomenon of “water nationalism,” with water becoming scarce for nearly two billion people of the subcontinent with each passing year.

It is to be noted that Modi is not the first Prime Minister that Mamata Banerjee, as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, has fought over sharing water with Bangladesh. Despite her party, Trinamul Congress, being a component of the then-ruling UPA led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, she scuttled efforts to share water.

Manmohan Singh, before his visit to Bangladesh in September 2011, had prepared, in consultation with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina, a package of agreements to resolve many of their bilateral irritants. However, a week before Singh’s visit, Banerjee denounced the proposed water-sharing agreement. Her opposition made the whole trip effectively irrelevant, to both sides’ great embarrassment.

FULL BENGAL MAP: Via: Wikipedia

There have been other instances of Delhi’s power to deal with foreign countries being diluted because of the resistance of state or provincial governments, leading to what experts call the growing “federalization” of Indian foreign policy.

Constitutionally speaking, foreign policy is the exclusive domain of the central government in India’s quasi-federal arrangement. The primary institutions for framing and implementing foreign policy are the external affairs minister, the bureaucracy attached to the ministry of external affairs, and the prime minister and his office.

The Centre can declare war, conduct relations with foreign nations and international organizations, appoint and receive diplomatic and consular officials, conclude, ratify, and implement treaties, and acquire or cede territory.

No wonder why, soon after independence, all major treaties that India had entered into with other countries – the Indo-Bhutanese Treaty of 1949, the Nehru-Liaquat Agreement of 1950, the Indo-Nepalese Treaty of 1951, the India-China Agreement of 1954, the Tashkent Agreement of 1965, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1972, the Simla Agreement of 1972 and the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 – were never discussed or debated in Parliament in advance, let alone state governments being briefed about them.

Even after the treaties were concluded, the parliamentarians, in the absence of any mandatory requirement of the Parliament’s approval for their ratification, have been helpless in modifying the texts.

However, things are now changing, particularly in the “border states.” Leaders here have forced the central government to include the concerns of the states’ people in dealings with the neighboring country. Foreign policy is thus being conditioned accordingly and getting “federalized.”

India borders Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives. In effect, what this means is that any development in each of these countries has its fallout on the contiguous Indian states. India-Pakistan relations thus affect Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Jammu and Kashmir; India-China relations affect Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh; India-Nepal relations spill over to Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, and West Bengal; India-Bhutan relations impinge upon West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam; India-Myanmar relations will have an impact on Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram; India-Bangladesh relations have implications for West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Assam; India-Sri Lanka relations are closely intertwined with the politics of Tamil Nadu; and India-Maldives relations will have its impact on Minicoy Islands.

It so happens that most of the important regional parties that govern the border states have important concerns with the neighbouring countries that are different from the concerns seen from New Delhi. See how Jammu and Kashmir looks at Pakistan, West Bengal looks at Bangladesh, and Tamil Nadu looks at Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina at the inauguration of various projects in Bangladesh, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Source: PIB)
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina at the inauguration of various projects in Bangladesh, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Source: PIB)

Incidentally, then an opposition parliamentarian, George Fernandes, on March 5, 1993, had given notice of intention to introduce the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 1993 in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) for amending article 253 to provide that treaties and conventions be ratified by each House of Parliament by not less than one half of the membership of each House and by a majority of the legislatures of not less than half the States. However, the Bill was not listed for consideration during the life of that Lok Sabha.

Prior to that, in February 1992, M A Baby, a Rajya Sabha (Upper House) member, had also given a similar notice. His Bill came up for discussion in the Rajya Sabha only in March 1997. However, it did not go beyond the discussion stage.

It is important to note that during the discussions, former Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee (who subsequently became India’s President), whose Congress party was supporting the then minority United Front government, had strongly argued as a Congress lawmaker in favor of “the Executive” (the Central government) retaining its primacy in treaty-making.

He had pointed out that if parliamentary approval would be mandatory for the conclusion of all treaties, then given the divisive nature of the polity, no important and sensitive treaties, such as the water-sharing treaties with Nepal and Bangladesh and World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements could ever have received India’s accession. He had only conceded that Parliament could have informed debate and discussion on the relevant provisions of the treaty but without any power to veto it.

Be that as it may, over the last few years, there have been enough instances that underscore the fact that states or provinces are clamoring for bigger roles in external relations, which were hitherto the exclusive preserve of the Central government.

After all, when one talks of globalization and the consequent interconnectedness between the peoples of various regions of the world, the state governments do get concerned if the people of the states are adversely affected by the impact of globalization, particularly in the areas of agriculture, setting up foreign industries, allowing multi-band retail, nuclear projects, and resource-sharing.

There is that burning example of the ignominious end of the South Korean giant POSCO’s plan to build a $12 billion steel plant in the eastern State of Odisha – India’s largest foreign direct investment project – following the State government’s suspension of the land acquisition for this project in the face of opposition from the people of this iron-ore rich region who would have been displaced because of the industrial project.

Whether the growing federalization of foreign policy is good or not depends on many variables. By its very nature, the term “federalization” presupposes a balance of political forces between the inherent tendencies of parliamentary centralization and federal decentralization.

But what is happening is that there is more “regionalization” than proper “federalization,” affecting the normal foreign policy process and making decisions unpredictable. And that is not good for the country as India’s economy grows and its integration with the global economy becomes more important.

Therefore, many foreign policy experts agree that the need of the hour is “A Balancing Act.” Whether Modi succeeds in meeting this challenge remains to be seen.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com