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Friday, September 16, 2011

BEYOND NATIONAL INTEREST - The Teesta issue has driven home the importance of federalism


By Swapan Dasgupta

The idea that the nation is larger than the sum of its parts readily finds an echo in New Delhi, the archetypal Imperial Capital carefully planned by Sir Edwin Lutyens to inspire both awe and reverence. The present-day Republic, undergoing serious mid-life convulsions, may not quite fit the bill as the deserving successor to the mighty Raj, but its functionaries still retain all the mental trappings of an imperial power, especially when it comes to dealing with the provinces.

It came as no surprise, therefore, that India’s national embarrassment during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka last week generated much tut-tutting. There was horror over the subordination of something as pristine pure as ‘foreign policy’ to parochial interests by a Chief Minister who was said to fancy herself as West Bengal’s Joan of Arc. The grapevine suggested that Pranab Mukherjee had burnt a fuse after the mild-mannered Trinamool Congress member of the Cabinet indicated ‘Didi’s’ misgivings over the proposed Teesta waters agreement. On TV, a member of the Delhi commentariat pronounced sombrely that Mamata Banerjee should first learn to behave before she acquired the privilege of being taken seriously in the Imperial Capital. Among the retired members of the Indian Foreign Service, there was broad consensus that Mamata’s shenanigans shouldn’t have been tolerated and that a firm Prime Minister would simply have overruled all objections and proceeded to sign the agreement in the ‘larger national interest’.

If the version being put out by a beleaguered South Block and Prime Minister’s Office is to be believed, a cynical Mamata double-crossed Manmohan and facilitated one of the biggest diplomatic disasters in recent times. The reasons given for the Chief Minister’s alleged duplicity vary according to the audience. It has been said that Mamata is temperamentally prone to violent mood swings; that she wanted to take it out on the Congress, and the Finance Minister in particular, for the difficulties encountered in securing extraordinary financial accommodation; that she feared a CPI(M) resurgence in North Bengal; that she couldn’t countenance the idea of being a member of the supporting cast in the delegation to Dhaka; and that she probably expected a Union Cabinet Minister to fall at her feet or, as Jairam Ramesh did with the Land Acquisitions Bill, flatter her into submission.

A common thread that runs through these proffered explanations of Mamata’s awkwardness is that the Centre and particularly the Ministry of External Affairs were innocent victims of one woman’s volatility. The Centre says that Kolkata was always kept in the loop and ‘informed’ at every step. It has been said that the Prime Minister spoke to Mamata and secured her approval. Much has also been made of the trip by the National Security Adviser (accompanied by the Water Resources Secretary) to Kolkata after the TMC threw a spanner in the works at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs.

The Union Government’s defence has been broadly digested in Delhi, particularly by the so-called ‘strategic affairs community’ that views any interaction with the NSA as the high-point of any engagement. Yet, two issues are worth considering.

First, in the eyes of an elected Chief Minister with an eye to mass politics, the NSA is just another bureaucratic functionary. Shiv Shankar Menon may be an accomplished diplomat who, if Delhi’s bush telegraph is any guide, is both de-facto External Affairs Minister and Foreign Secretary. However, at the end of the day he is not a political functionary and is not empowered to take political decisions. That he enjoys the trust of the Prime Minister is undeniable. At the same time, his record of negotiating delicate matters of political importance is poor. His attempts to persuade the Opposition to support the original version of the Civil Nuclear Liabilities Bill, for example, came a complete cropper. It finally needed an empowered political veteran in the form of the Finance Minister to negotiate a give-and-take arrangement with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The final Act may not have been to the liking of the US State Department but it did reflect the broadest national consensus on the subject.

In the past, whenever the issue of river waters was negotiated with Bangladesh, successive governments at the Centre had taken exceptional care to accommodate West Bengal’s concerns. Indira Gandhi, for example, entrusted the responsibility of engaging with the then Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray to Jagjivan Ram. During the United Front rule, External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral met Jyoti Basu on a number of occasions and the Joint Secretary dealing with Bangladesh went on joint river visits with the Chief Minister.

Compared to past exercises, the approach of the MEA on this occasion appears remarkably casual. Whether this has got to do with the absence of a functioning External Affairs Minister or the presumption that an UPA ally could be taken for granted is something the Delhi Establishment needs to agonise over.

Secondly, the Centre appears to have been insufficiently mindful of the grim realities of a federal polity. Since foreign policy and international treaties belongs exclusively to the Centre’s domain, MEA officials are inadequately sensitive to the issue of wider consultations within India. The scope of India’s public diplomacy doesn’t extend to making the provinces feel a part of the foreign policy processes.

Whether the Prime Minister could have ridden roughshod over the objections of the state and negotiated the Teesta waters sharing with Bangladesh belongs to a grey area of the Constitution. But regardless of its superior rights in law, it is reassuring that the issue of conflicting rights was not tested. Perhaps this owed to the importance of the TMC as the Congress’ largest coalition partner in the UPA. Would the Centre have backed down had, say, the issue involved an agreement with Pakistan over the Rann of Kutch where the Gujarat Government was in firm disagreement? In the past, Rajiv Gandhi’s Government had not hesitated to dismiss the DMK Government in Tamil Nadu for actions that went against the grain of India’s Sri Lanka policy.

Arguably, there was no national security involved in the river waters agreement with Bangladesh to warrant precipitate action—although that itself makes the over-involvement of the NSA somewhat inexplicable. However, that is still no justification for what someone described as ‘MEA unilateralism’. The point to note is that the demand for sharing the Teesta waters downstream did not come from West Bengal. It was aimed at meeting a long-standing demand by Bangladesh for which it was willing to concede transit rights to Chittagong for the North-eastern states. In short, West Bengal was being asked to be accommodative for the sake of the larger ‘national interest’.

The Centre was acting in India’s best interests. Yet, since the whole arrangement with Bangladesh was premised on the principle of quid pro quo, Mamata was equally justified in implicitly asking what West Bengal would gain from the arrangement. Moreover, since the Teesta flows into North Bengal from Sikkim, it was only fair that the small Himalayan state should also be brought into the calculation. One of the shortcomings of the Ganga waters treaty of 1996 that Nitish Kumar has rightly drawn attention to is that Bihar was not consulted.

The diplomatic fiasco in Dhaka points to the complete unviability of any international agreement with neighbours before there is a broad domestic agreement on the subject. Mamata has been sufficiently vilified in the Imperial Capital but in the process she has successfully driven home the overriding importance of federalism. There has to be a mindset change: Delhi must reconcile to its new role as a service centre for the states of the Union. 



  

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

One of the most brilliantly incisive much NEEDED writeups of Sri.Swapan Dasgupta.

That Mamata Banerjee & Nitish Kumar were not consulted & unanimous consensus reached needs no proof or corroboration. Is not this the way the imperious congress always functions ? Or for that matter Indian families on the whole thrusting mates , food , careers , karma cola imperiously on their children produced cluelessly?

Kolkata is extremely important for us Indians. I firmly maintain Bengalis have it in them - HOMEOPATHY. Which is so important for one's well being worldwide. Bengali Homeopaths are not avaricious & unscrupulous like Tamil Nadu & Mumbai homeopaths.

I recall the famous sitar maestro Uday Shankar on his visit to Kolkata sought Kolkata's Prashantha Banerjee ( Elgin Road)to treat him.

Kolkata does not need NANO cars but more funding of Homeopathy , Horticulture & Agriculture.

Another thing that has upset me violently is the recent National Film Awards for Kollywood's utterly despicably undeserving movie Aadukalam & Dadasaheb Phalke for one swollen headed director Balachander. I don't want to launch into reasons as these are my strong personal opinions.

Among all Indian movie makers with eyes wide shut I would vote for Paschim Banga's SATHYAJIT RAY !!!

And certain other Bengalis like Bimal Roy followed by Kollywood's A.P.Nagarajan , S.S.Vasan & Chinnappa Devar. Ofcourse Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron my all time favourite.

Only very recently I happened to see Satyajit Ray's movies & there is this timelessness about his movies. So it would not hurt us Indians to keep watching his movies again & again & do away with this charade of National Awards altogether.

Satyajit Ray's movies would sensitise the mulishly violent & smug Indians on the whole.

Anonymous said...

Missed out another Indian film maker I like. He is Gulzar.

Indians of southern states (particularly Tamil Nadu , Andhra & Karnataka) & ofcourse Godforsaken Bollywood included ought to take a bow & genuflect with poor grace before Bengali Sathyajit Ray as the former lack subtlety , too gross & loud. They are like that. Tawdry & uncouthly pretentious hypocrites. Period.

In the name of petty parochialism & political correctness one ought not to honour the undeserving from Kollywood.

This Balachandar like a typical tambram loudly & repeatedly claims he is (sic)"inspired by Ray & Sathyajit Ray is his mentor".

Aparna Sen & Rituparno pale in comparison before Sathyajit Ray.

Sathyajit Ray is THE BEST among Indians. Considering among many factors his taut meaningful script & dialogues.Lack of titillating scenes for saleability & so forth.His music & that all the actors & actresses perform well.

Anonymous said...

Sai Paranjpye is also very good.Far far superior to overhyped Mani Rathnam.

seadog4227 said...

I had no idea that an article on federalism woulds be connected to homeopathy, film awards and god knows what else. No wonder we Indians are incapable of framing a single lucid response or question when required.

Anonymous said...

>>>>I had no idea that an article on federalism ...... response or question when required>>>>

Seemingly "lucid" comment posted above.

ROTFL....

That is PRECISELY the reason Sri.Swapan Dasgupta is well...Sri.Swapan Dasgupta.

Had he been one of those jingoistic Indian ( read Hindu) bloggers haranguing " desh ki liye vo karaengae , ye karaengae....ourrr great Vedic parampara , sanskriti , heritage...." blahblah would have been ultra cocksure & uber "lucid" pampering the excessively incorrigibly OBESE HUBRIS of patriotic Indians.

Anonymous said...

That among this overpopulating Indians only one Narendra Modi , Jayalalitha , Mamata Banerjee , Nitish Kumar get cited for various reasons as better than the rest ought to ALERT the few sane Indians & the rest of the world to a crucial SOS TRUTH.

How indescribably brainspinningly irredeemably & incorrigibly CORRUPT UNTRUSTWORTHY & TOXIC Indians are.Including overhyped Indian corporate honchos be they pious vegetarians and/or profits engineering wizards:-((

In Arab countries like Kuwait & UAE, there are no Narendra Modis agreed. In fact I would fail miserably if asked to name the Amir of Kuwait or any sparse information about The Royal Family or my Kuwaiti landlord.

YET , I prefer to live & die in Kuwait.I have NEVER had to worry about water shortage , erratic supply , food poisoning , adulterated drugs , gropers , rapists , drug peddlers , thieves, thugs donations for various festivals in the name of God , ear splitting diatribes by any Kuwaiti Minister , ears tweaking by any Kuwaiti lady inquisitioning me about oil baths taken/missed/, sweetmeats & savouries made & devoured in the name of God , floral alpana missing at my doorstep menacingly portending arrival of God's wrath...you get the drift.

Need I say anything about impeccable governance , law & order ? I have never been to Saudi Arabia. But I suppose it also must be far superior to Godforsaken India. Otherwise lots of Indians would be dying to return to India.

Same with Canada , USA , Australia, New Zealand,Japan China,UK,Germany etc etc. So patently self evident.

Ask the matha mota (swollen headed) Indians ensconced there churning out treasonous gobbledygook " Breaking India" & "cow caste cash" theories & their equally matha mota Indian cheerleaders to return to India.

Would commit mass suicide blaming it on AmericAAAAAA.

Anonymous said...

That among this overpopulating Indians only one Narendra Modi , Jayalalitha , Mamata Banerjee , Nitish Kumar get cited for various reasons as better than the rest ought to ALERT the few sane Indians & the rest of the world to a crucial SOS TRUTH.

How indescribably brainspinningly irredeemably & incorrigibly CORRUPT UNTRUSTWORTHY & TOXIC Indians are.Including overhyped Indian corporate honchos be they pious vegetarians and/or profits engineering wizards:-((

In Arab countries like Kuwait & UAE, there are no Narendra Modis agreed. In fact I would fail miserably if asked to name the Amir of Kuwait or any sparse information about The Royal Family or my Kuwaiti landlord.

YET , I prefer to live & die in Kuwait.I have NEVER had to worry about water shortage , erratic supply , food poisoning , adulterated drugs , gropers , rapists , drug peddlers , thieves, thugs donations for various festivals in the name of God , ear splitting diatribes by any Kuwaiti Minister , ears tweaking by any Kuwaiti lady inquisitioning me about oil baths taken/missed/, sweetmeats & savouries made & devoured in the name of God , floral alpana missing at my doorstep menacingly portending arrival of God's wrath...you get the drift.

Need I say anything about impeccable governance , law & order ? I have never been to Saudi Arabia. But I suppose it also must be far superior to Godforsaken India. Otherwise lots of Indians would be dying to return to India.

Same with Canada , USA , Australia, New Zealand,Japan China,UK,Germany etc etc. So patently self evident.

Ask the matha mota (swollen headed) Indians ensconced there churning out treasonous gobbledygook " Breaking India" & "cow caste cash" theories & their equally matha mota Indian cheerleaders to return to India.

Would commit mass suicide blaming it on AmericAAAAAA.

Anonymous said...

Awfully sorry !

Sitar maestro Ravishankar not Uday Shankar consulted P.Banerjee for his treatment in Kolkata.

I am ETERNALLY grateful to Prashantha Banerjee for treating me & my child. Had he not cured my child in one week yes seven days ( as my child barely six months old was not only snatched from me but also dumped in various hostile hands & creches in my absence without my consent. Thus was sodomized. Leading to rectal prolapse.

I had absolutely no knowlege at all or even the word called sodomy & what it was. And that infants also are sexually abused by relatives , caretakers ayahs servants. I was breastfeeding him. Hence my child was not constipated. Yet would scream in pain as most of his rectum came out.

Several allopaths paediatricians advocated operation including Jyoti Basu's grandchildren's personal paediatrician. They also did not tell me the cause of his rectal prolapse. They KNEW. But "emon tho hobey" " kapal/karma"is their apathetic bestial attitude.

Prashantha Banerjee cured my child in SEVEN days.

Jitendra Desai said...

Didi may be justified on Teesta.She or none else is even talking about crores Bangladeshis staying illegally in WB,Bihar,Assam,Tripura.If Didi is so much worried about well being of WB,she should have also raised this issue.
Since BJP too is silent on this issue,it appears that we have arrived at a national consensus on this.Without the nation getting any wiser on it.Or is it one more case of MEA's unilaterlism?

Deep Mkerj said...

What WB needs to share with BD, more than Teesta, is an impregnable barbed wire fence, to prevent those visitors who enter with the "intent of peace".

Unfortunately Mamata mafia similar to her erstwhile anti-Hindu predecessor, the communist mafioso, is heavily reliant on the religion of peace, especially imports, to stay in power.

Teesta is fine, but with the way things are going for WB, in addition to sharing Teesta, we may soon be sharing greetings "Peace be upon you." A rather disturbing thought ..

.. Although this doesn't seem to bother either the South Block, or JNU's or people using extra "h" in every word.