INDIA-BANGLADESH : SUSHMA SWARAJ SHOWS MODI SHE CAN DRAW THE LINE
It is to the credit of the external affairs minister that she kept faith with the Bangladeshis.
There is one heroine in the matter of the Constitution’s 119th Amendment Bill, 2013, with regard to the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) between India and Bangladesh, and she is external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
In the last year, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled from country to country with enormous energy, promoting India’s name and pushing national interest – the US, Australia, Germany, France, Sri Lanka, etc, he charted them all – he forgot, albeit momentarily, the cardinal rule in every country’s foreign policy: the neighbourhood is overwhelmingly important and cannot be subsumed to party interest.
Except this is exactly what Modi tried to do last week when the Union cabinet passed a Bill to amend the Constitution on the land boundary matter with Bangladesh, leaving Assam out of the Bill. And that was because the Assam BJP protested to the PM, arguing that if Assam was included in the Bill it would badly impact the party when elections in the state were held next year.
The PM capitulated last week and the Bill was cleared by the Union cabinet. Assam was kept out of the exchange of territories – both enclaves and adverse possessions, of which India is expected to lose a mere 10,000 acres – but other states contiguous to Bangladesh, namely West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya, were kept in.
Of course, all hell was breaking loose on a variety of fronts. The Congress party protested, with Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi (who leads a Congress government in the state) writing to the PM, and asking why he wasn’t consulted on such an important matter.
“We are completely in the dark about the reasons behind this turnaround and how the interests of the people of Assam are going to be protected by the exclusion of the clauses relating to Assam during the process of ratification by Parliament. This decision is also against the principles of cooperative federalism, which you have been advocating,” Gogoi said in his letter to the PM.
Meanwhile, the ministry of external affairs led by Sushma Swaraj, was said to have expressed deep unhappiness at the turn of events. In her first standalone visit as external affairs minister, to Bangladesh in June 2014, Swaraj had assured Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that India was in favour of the land boundary agreement and that her BJP-led government would complete the process begun by Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September 2011.
Back home in Delhi, Swaraj insisted – to all those who would listen to her inside her own party – that such a boundary agreement with Bangladesh was imperative not only for its own sake, but also because of the various advantages that would accrue to India’s Northeastern states.
One glance at the map will tell you how correct Swaraj is. The Northeast is connected with the rest of the mainland through a narrow, chicken’s neck-like corridor and all goods have to take a hugely circuitous road to reach the seven states that lie beyond. If the LBA went ahead, Swaraj pointed out, the Bangladeshis would allow Indian goods to transit overland through Bangladeshi territory to the Northeast, saving precious time and money.
Moreover, the security of the Northeast, which shares borders with countries like Myanmar and China besides Bangladesh, was intimately connected with better relations with Bangladesh, Swaraj said. The Assam BJP, “our people,” she pointed out to the BJP leadership, would have to be persuaded that it was in “India’s interest” if the LBA with Bangladesh came through.
So as the Union cabinet passed a Bill last week keeping Assam out, several India-watchers in Bangladesh wondered why a prime minister with such a thumping majority in the Lok Sabha was being spooked by his own party unit in that state? These analysts asked why Modi had assured the former Bangladesh high commissioner to India Tariq Karim, several months before the 2014 general election, that if the BJP won power it would go ahead with the passage of the Land Boundary Bill.
It was increasingly beginning to seem as if Modi hadn’t thought through his decision to keep Assam out of the land boundary agreement. Especially since the undemarcated boundary between the two countries consists of a measly 6.1km (out of more than 4,000km, which had been demarcated several years ago) and which has been pending since 1974, when former prime minister Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh president Mujibur Rahman had promised that this would soon be done.
With Modi agreeing that Assam would be kept out, a foreign policy disaster seemed to be looming large. Even if the BJP had succeeded in ramming the Bill through Parliament – which looked difficult, since the BJP needed Congress support in the Rajya Sabha to do so, besides 50 per cent of state legislatures – diplomats asked what would happen when India presented such a truncated piece of legislation to the Bangladeshis? Certainly, it was more than likely that Bangladesh would spurn it.
What would happen, then, to India’s prestige and reputation, anguished diplomats asked. What would happen to relations with Bangladesh, a very important country in India’s neighbourhood, which India had helped birth four decades ago in 1971?
It is to the credit of Sushma Swaraj that she kept faith with the Bangladeshis. Certainly, she couldn’t stand up to the prime minister last week when he insisted that the cabinet clear the Bill with Assam kept out. But in the space of the last few days, Swaraj is said to have brought a wealth of new understanding to this problematic situation.
So when the BJP and RSS brass met on Monday evening to discuss the Bill – besides Swaraj, home minister Rajnath Singh, parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu as well as RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal were present – the government was persuaded to look at the matter also in terms of India’s national interest.
The Swaraj line had won the battle against the Modi line – but most of all, for India as well as Bangladesh.
MAY 05, 2015