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9 Apr 2017

PM takes Teesta plunge - Modi makes commitment to find early solution to Teesta, strain with Mamata shows

Sheikh Hasina with Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee at New Delhi on Saturday. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha
Charu Sudan Kasturi, TT, New Delhi, April 8: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today made a commitment to find an "early" closure to the Teesta water-sharing agreement, appealing to the pact's principal opponent Mamata Banerjee in public and signalling confidence that he can win her over. 
Modi's comments, insisting that he and visiting Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina were the "only" two leaders of their countries who could deliver on the Teesta pact, came after 90 minutes of talks between them that culminated in a bouquet of agreements. 
The agreements ranged from defence pacts binding the security relationship between the countries and nuclear deals, under which India will train Bangladeshi scientists and help design reactors, to an unparalleled $5-billion soft loan to Dhaka.
But Modi acknowledged the centrality of the Teesta pact that Hasina's opponents in Bangladesh have held up as the touchstone of her success with India and the critical support he needs from the Bengal chief minister to seal the deal.
The Teesta deal, which could prove crucial politically for Hasina - one of New Delhi's closest partners in the neighbourhood - is "important for India, for Bangladesh and for (the) India-Bangladesh relationship", Modi said.
Then, tilting his head towards Mamata, who had minutes earlier joined foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and other officials to the Prime Minister's left, Modi issued a public appeal - and a carefully crafted show of confidence rare in international diplomacy.
"I am very happy that the chief minister of West Bengal is my honoured guest today. I know that her feelings for Bangladesh are as warm as my own," Modi said.
"I assure you and the people of Bangladesh of our commitment and continuing efforts. I firmly believe that it is only my government and, Excellency Sheikh Hasina, your government that can and will find an early solution to Teesta water-sharing."
The Modi-Hasina talks today followed days of quiet negotiations by New Delhi with the Bengal government to try and ensure that the Bangladesh Prime Minister's visit goes smoothly and she can carry back at least optimism on the Teesta agreement.
Mamata's administration has not made any commitment yet, officials confirmed, killing the prospects of the Prime Ministers announcing a breakthrough.
Late this evening, Mamata drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan, where Hasina is staying, for a meeting with the Bangladesh Prime Minister. Speaking to reporters as she left after the meeting, Mamata appeared conciliatory, not confrontational, but prepared to bargain hard.
"I have told the PM and Sheikh Hasina that the Teesta already has so little water that Bengal can't afford to share it," Mamata said. "I have suggested exploring the possibility of sharing water from four or five rivers in north Bengal."
The chief minister referred to the Torsa among the rivers whose waters could be shared, and said she had proposed a joint study by the two countries and the state government to examine the feasibility of her plan.
Politically, Hasina cannot accept such a solution, Bangladesh officials said, because it would amount to accepting defeat on the Teesta pact.
But both Indian and Bangladeshi diplomats said they viewed Mamata's comments as a bargaining posture.
To the Modi government, Mamata's decision to accept the Prime Minister's invitation to attend a series of inaugurations - a train and a bus connecting Calcutta and Khulna and a new rail rake - signalled her openness to the negotiations over a resolution.
"We were very appreciative that the chief minister of West Bengal came for the flagging-off ceremonies with the Prime Minister and his Bangladesh counterpart," foreign secretary S. Jaishankar said in the evening.
The perceived tensions between Modi and Mamata were evident even when they stood next to each other to press buttons, symbolically launching the new train and bus and inaugurating the rake.
Modi gestured to Mamata to join Hasina and him, but without looking at her. Mamata took her place, ensuring a measured distance between her and the Indian Prime Minister. She did not look at Modi, either.
When it was time to press the buttons, Modi again had to gesture to Mamata to join in. Mamata spoke to Modi but for no more than three seconds. The Indian Prime Minister responded as briefly.
But New Delhi is convinced that it needs to make every effort it can to clinch the Teesta agreement, held up because of Mamata's opposition since September 2011 when Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister, was scheduled to conclude the pact.
Hasina and her team made it clear that the other initiatives announced today might not be enough to shield her from domestic criticism, ahead of the national elections expected in late 2018, that she had given India more than she had got.
Dhaka has insisted on breakthroughs on the niggles over water-sharing to showcase to her predominantly agrarian nation that her warm ties with India have benefited ordinary Bangladeshis.
"We discussed the sharing of common rivers, including the Teesta, the Padma-Ganga barrage and inland waterways," Hasina said about her meeting with Modi.
For the Indian foreign office, which has seen ups and downs in relations with Bangladesh that closely map the changes in regimes in Dhaka - Hasina's principal rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, is traditionally less friendly with New Delhi - attempting those breakthroughs is critical.
"We have in this government spoken of a neighbourhood-first policy," Jaishankar said. "But if there is one example when this approach has yielded positive results for both sides, it is with Bangladesh."
Modi's emphasis on the current governments in both countries resolving the Teesta pact was also a signal to Bangladesh, officials said, that India viewed Hasina as the only partner there with whom it could realistically hope to seal the tricky agreement.
Oops! moments
That dependence sparked nervous laughter in both delegations today, when Modi accidentally referred to India's help to Bangladesh in electronics as assistance in "elections", correcting his words a second later.
Minutes earlier, India's chief of protocol, Sanjay Verma, had got too literal while asking the two Prime Ministers to descend from their dais to virtually flag off the new trains with Mamata.
"I now ask the two Prime Ministers to step down," Verma said, drawing guffaws from Hasina, who had to explain what had happened to a seemingly befuddled Modi, before the diplomat corrected himself. "The two PMs who have not stepped down."

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