Since childhood Mamata Banerjee has lived beside Adi Ganga, which is regarded as one of the original courses of the Hooghly river. Though it is a matter of speculation whether that proximity has lent her extra sensitivity to matters related to rivers, the Bengal CM has taken a decision on the Teesta water-sharing deal with Bangladesh, which has struck rare political unanimity in the state otherwise marked by sharp political faultlines, and even put the BJP in a bind. Just hours ahead of the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit, opposition leaders in Bengal were saying that the CM’s stand of ‘Bengal first’ is correct and that Delhi will find it difficult to ignore.
The point to remember is that the Centre cannot be accused of unconstitutionality if it concludes the Teesta water- sharing agreement with Dhaka. But then, Banerjee is only too aware that Indian foreign policy takes the relevant states on board while dealing with neighbours, which is why Tamil Nadu is important while dealing with Sri Lanka, J&K with Pakistan and Bengal (and the North East) when dealing with Bangladesh.
All opposition leaders without exception in Bengal also concede that the Centre cannot – read should not – do anything that compromises the interests of Bengal. They also point out that the Centre should have made the first move to study the technical parameters – availability of water in the river in different seasons and the domestic needs – and prepare the ground in consultation with the state government.
They also concede, since the onus of striking the agreement is on Delhi, that the Centre should have prepared the ground by taking Bengal on board long ago.
In a recent statement, Banerjee categorically said she has not heard anything at all from the Centre on the matter.
This is one issue where she loses nothing by sitting tight. Even if Delhi ignores her concerns and goes ahead, she can say that BJP does not think twice before sacrificing the interests of Bengal. As the war between Trinamool Congress and BJP intensifies before the 2018 rural polls and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it can translate into a political windfall for the embattled Bengal chief minister.
However, Banerjee is also aware that Delhi needs Dhaka by its side in its fight against terrorist elements entering India through the porous borders of Bengal. It will be only to Delhi’s interest that the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina return in power in the 2019 elections in Bangladesh, and the water-sharing treaty can be a handy tool in her hands to refute charges at home that she is unnecessarily soft towards India.
There can also be compulsions that may silently be at play. With CBI launching investigation into the Narada footage, where about a dozen leaders of Trinamool Congress – MPs, ministers, MLAs, Kolkata mayor – were seen accepting cash, the Bengal CM is facing the biggest embarrassment of her four-decade long political career.
With the BJP loading the guns against Trinamool before the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2018 rural polls, one cannot rule out extraneous factors flowing down the course of the Teesta river.
There is only one cost – more appropriately, opportunity cost – that Banerjee may have to bear. Sheikh Hasina reportedly indicated that she will allow export of Padma’s Hilsa to India if the water flows from the Teesta. However, Mamata Banerjee also hopes that Bengalis will put Bengal ahead of their favourite fish.