September 15, 2011: For diplomats like us, there are few things worse than a highly touted bilateral summit meeting between two friendly national leaders that at the last minute fails to meet either the expectations of the summiteers themselves or the inflated hopes of their publics. These setbacks are not supposed to happen. According to the “diplomatic rule book,” basic agreements are worked out in advance by subordinate officials. These are then ratified by the leaders, perhaps with minor changes. If major outstanding problems are not ironed out before the summit begins, as sometimes happens, the two government try to limit expectations, not to encourage them.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s September 6-7 visit to Bangladesh is a case study of a summit whose preparation didn’t follow these rules. The two sides made some useful progress at the meeting. But they had failed to anticipate, let alone resolve, a major stumbling block on a key issue. This changed what had been widely touted as an “historic visit” into one that embarrassed both governments, rendered them more vulnerable to criticism at home, and raised serious questions about the possibility of future advance.
The build-up to the visit had been an exercise in euphoria and hype. It was widely expected that the summit would bring the often uneasy bilateral ties between the two countries to heights not attained since India’s army helped liberate Bangladesh from Pakistani rule in 1971. Officials of both countries confidently anticipated – and let their publics know – that they would at last resolve long-standing disputes on such crucial issues as the division of the waters of two important rivers, transit rights for Indian commerce across Bangladeshi territory, and access to the lucrative Indian market for Bangladeshi garments, the country’s principal export. The two sides were also expected to straighten out minor territorial anomalies along their borders and agree to develop a framework for economic cooperation.
Viewed in the context of the problem-filled history of India-Bangladesh relations this agenda seemed a tall order, as it ultimately proved to be. But progress in improving ties since the visit to India of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in January 2010 seemed to offer an excellent opportunity for further achievements at the summit. During that visit Hasina, who had returned to power a year earlier, made it clear that better ties with India would be a major part of her agenda. She called for greater economic “connectivity” between India and Bangladesh and suggested that Bangladesh could provide a link not only between the Indian “mainland” and the isolated northeastern states of the country but also between India and Southeast Asia. It was a bold and courageous move for Hasina. She recognized that this call for better relations would cause her political difficulties at home. Bangladeshi governments that try to move in that direction almost invariably become vulnerable to charges of selling out to New Delhi.
Hasina’s approach was reciprocated by Singh. The Indian prime minister had long sought to promote closer relations between India and its smaller neighbors. Some said he wanted to make strengthened regional ties his political heritage. He also has focused on strengthening India’s ties with the countries to its east, his so-called “Look East” policy. Bangladesh, on India’s eastern border, was an obvious candidate for his interest.
In the ensuing twenty months there was palpable improvement both in the substance and the ambiance of India-Bangladesh relations. The Indians were gratified by the tough measures Hasina’s government took against Islamic and other extremist groups that used Bangladeshi territory as a base for operations in eastern India. They were also pleased with the way Bangladesh dealt with the threat of Islamic radicalism at home. For its part, Bangladesh particularly welcomed the billion-dollar line of credit that the Indians provided for its development. Senior Indian cabinet ministers and other officials came to Bangladesh in unprecedented numbers and reached useful agreements with their Bangladeshi counterparts. The visit of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi seemed a particularly significant and auspicious event in this upward trajectory in bilateral relations. And on the Bangladeshi side, even the principal opposition party, the BNP, appeared to accept that an accommodation with India was needed.
So what went wrong? Neither side had anticipated until it was too late the powerful opposition to the proposal for the sharing of the waters of the Teesta River that would come from Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the Indian state of Paschimbanga (until recently West Bengal). Banerjee thought the formula worked out between Indian and Bangladeshi negotiators had been too generous to the Bangladeshis. She alleged that it would damage the economic interests of her constituents.
For his part, Manmohan Singh was either unwilling or unable to persuade her to change her position. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, a party that operates exclusively within her state, is an important constituent in the coalition United Progressive Alliance government that Singh’s Indian National Congress leads in New Delhi. She had only recently led her party (in alliance with Singh’s) to an historic victory over the Communist-led Left Front in elections to Paschimbanga’s legislative assembly. Singh, by contrast, has been in political decline. He has been seriously weakened by a series of scandals involving cabinet ministers and others in his government, and that almost certainly contributed to his decision not to push the Teesta issue when Mamata so strongly objected. So on the very eve of the visit the Indians announced that more consultation would be required on the matter and no agreement would be signed on this during the visit.
The deadlock on the Teesta led the Bangladeshis to back away from an agreement on the waters of the Feni, another river that provides water to both countries but is on the eastern side of Bangladesh, far removed from Mamata’s domain. More important, Hasina’s government retreated from its agreement to allow India to ship its products across Bangladesh and use two Bangladesh ports. “No Teesta, No Transit” became the position of the Bangladesh government, as repeatedly headlined in the Dhaka press.
The two governments did make progress in other areas, however, reaching agreements that under normal circumstances would have been considered significant. They ended a boundary dispute dating back to the end of the British raj, exchanging multiple enclaves belonging to each country but located within the territory of the other. They agreed to the free entry of forty-six Bangladeshi-manufactured garment products to India, a step that could lead to a substantial reduction in the heavy bilateral trade imbalance in India’s favor. They also concluded a framework agreement that could open many promising possibilities for joint development of power projects.
Inevitably, there has been plenty of post-summit finger-pointing in all directions. Both governments came out of the summit looking bad. The two prime ministers have come in for a lot of criticism for their inept handling of the negotiations, their entrusting the wrong bureaucrats to move them forward, and their failure to anticipate difficulties. Both suffered a loss in political standing, particularly damaging for Singh whose prestige has plummeted over the past year. In Bangladesh, where Hasina’s term still has another two years to go, the opposition BNP has claimed that the mishandling of the summit calls for the resignation of Hasina’s government and for fresh elections.
Observers in both countries believe that future progress on the two key stalemated issues remain uncertain, and we agree. What is much more certain is that the summit, despite the real successes it included, has been a major disappointment. Future efforts to improve relations need to be much less flamboyant and will take a lot of careful work. We hope that the two sides will recognize that they should continue these important endeavors to build better ties. It will not only benefit them but the broader region as well.