Mamata's new spirt of accommodation
It is an extraordinarily conciliatory gesture coming from the usually volatile Mamata Banerjee. The West Bengal chief minister has decided to go with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his maiden visit to neighbouring Bangladesh, something she refused to do when former PM Manmohan Singh went calling to that country.
At that time, Ms Banerjee was ostensibly miffed over the Teesta water-sharing agreement. This time around, in the backdrop of the visit, Parliament has passed a constitutional amendment Bill on the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh which will operationalise the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement under which 161 enclaves held by both sides will be exchanged. Both the Teesta Treaty and the Land Boundary Agreement may be signed during this visit.
The Teesta water issue is a powerful political weapon for Ms Banerjee at home, an issue which never fails to raise passions. And she has used it to great effect during the UPA regime. If Ms Banerjee stormed off in high dudgeon last time when asked to accompany Mr Singh, this time she has played her cards very differently.
With not much to show by way of industrialisation or development four years into her tenure as CM, she realises that a head-on confrontation with the Centre will hurt her more than it will the NDA and she urgently needs a financial package for the state. This is probably why she has overlooked even hostile remarks by some top BJP leaders during the recent municipal elections and shown a spirit of accommodation with the PM.
A hint of things to come was seen when she went to Dhaka in February. For India, a united front on these two contentious issues is important. The Bangladesh government is mindful of both the insurgency issue and the migration problem that India faces from that country. Sheikh Hasina has been most cooperative on the insurgency problem.
Her party is seen as a bulwark against the growing Islamist forces in the country, among whom are the people responsible for the murder of several atheist bloggers. Ms Banerjee’s presence also gives new depth to the PM’s neighbourhood outreach and signals a willingness on India’s part to resolve thorny issues.
While the Bengal chief minister may be motivated by the desire to wrest more for the state, the BJP too has realised that it needs all the friends it can get in the states where its presence is still to be really felt. Any agreement reached in Dhaka will have to be something that Ms Banerjee can claim as a triumph to her followers in West Bengal. If she can, the BJP may well have found the ally that it has been looking for in the East, even though she is a notoriously difficult ally to please.