by Somnath Mukherjee
The editorial today in the Indian Express captures some element of the damage to India’s relations with Bangladesh caused by Mamata Bannerjee’s caper over the Teesta river treaty. What it leaves unsaid is the severe damage to India’s neighbourhood outreach strategy in general this has done.
Its somewhat ironic that Indian governments have been far more capable of defying local political opposition for key foreign policy initiatives farther ashore than for those concerning our immediate neighbours. Succcessive governments, both Congress and BJP, defied opposition in Kerala to the FTA with Thailand. On the other hand, India’s Sri Lanka policy has been held hostage to Tamil Nadu politics for the last two decades.
Manmohan Singh made his policy on South Asia a lynchpin of his foreign policy paradigm. No other leg of the initiative got as much of a “leg up” as Bangladesh when Sheikh Hasina came to power. The new outreach of the Bangladeshi government to India came as a welcome ballast to Indian efforts to build a new cooperative architecture with Bangladesh. Bangladesh shed years of a “sulking neighbour” attitude to openly embrace a new relationship, starting with the rounding up of North Eastern insurgents enjoying sanctuary there. India reciprocated, first during the BDR revolt, and then again during the attempted coup of retired and serving Army officers against the Hasina government.
But the big idea is still missing. Congress’s weakness at the Centre and Mamata Bannerjee’s attempt to carve out a different (regional) niche for herself has made the big idea of Bangladesh policy hostage to West Bengal politics.
Given the state of Centre’s influence over allies and policymaking currently, one can only hope that better wisdom dawns upon Mamata and this doesnt become an encore of India’s Sri Lanka policy and enable China to deepen its access and influence in this important neighbour of India.