Friday, September 09, 2011

For a Few Cusecs More

From Byword- India Today (September 9)

Dr Manmohan Singh, vegetarian by preference, went to Dhaka to eat some hilsa fish. He returned, alas, with a bit of ash in his mouth. But this failure to sign an accord over Teesta water is a story that makes no sense.

Failure, of course, is an orphan. No one wants paternity rights to a bastard. The blame game over the Teesta fiasco is already being played at a fast and furious pace with each player tweaking the rules from his or her vantage point. When Mamata Banerjee points, she does not do so with a mere finger; she flashes a full hand. Her aides do not whisper when they brief media; they shout when the news is good, and scream when it is bad. The truth is, or should be, an official secret but its versions are being fed to a starving media. The message from Calcutta is unambiguous; it was betrayed by Delhi. Mamata had agreed to part with 25,000 cusecs of Teesta water, but Delhi upped this to 33,000 cusecs. When Trinamool minister Dinesh Trivedi raised an objection in the Cabinet, he was brushed aside by Pranab Mukherjee.

This makes even less sense.

Anyone familiar with international treaties knows that the torture lies in the detail. The print is always fine. Diplomats hire smiles from plastic surgeons, and then fight like pit bulls in very slow motion over every comma. A pattern is etched onto grey areas, dot by dot. There is give and take till deadline. The Teesta waters have been floating across the Indo-Bangladesh dialogue ever since Teesta, or at least ever since Bangladesh was born in 1971. It took a quarter century of negotiations to sign the Ganga River Treaty in 1996; but the generation of Jyoti Basu and Inder Gujral went to Dhaka with clean ink because there was continuous consultation between Delhi and Calcutta. What was so difficult about maintaining similar transparency between Dr Singh and Ms Banerjee?

This treaty was not drafted by the foreign ministry; the Prime Minister's Office took ownership of the process, with National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon in charge of detail. He went to Calcutta twice in the last two months solely to brief Mamata on the sharing of Teesta water. And there lay the problem. It was not a conversation between equals. Menon was adequate when there was agreement; but when Dhaka wanted more, Calcutta was, inexplicably, kept out of the loop. Perhaps Menon thought that the pressure of a deadline in high-stakes diplomacy would persuade Mamata to be more flexible, always a risky manoeuvre. But negotiating with a mercurial CM were above Menon's pay grade. A bureaucrat can brief. Only an equal can persuade.
There seems, however, more to this episode than meets the eye, or ear. The fuss began before the catastrophe, when Mamata said she would travel independently to Dhaka. You float such political confetti only when you are itching to put some distance between Calcutta and Delhi.

It is always difficult to know if Dr Singh is crestfallen. His crest never moves, so how do you know if it has fallen? His voice gives even less away, when he chooses to speak. But you do not have to be a mind-reader to gauge a gathering depression. Unanswered questions, some born in the morning, others which are ghosts of crises past, are strewn around, a noxious debris sucking life out of this administration, event by event. The bomb that went off in Delhi on September 7 was not the first terrorist attack in the era of Dr Singh; but this was the first time that Rahul Gandhi was heckled after a visit to see victims in hospital. Delhi's question is basic: A terrorist bomb failed to go off in the High Court in May; why did Home Minister P. Chidambaram do absolutely nothing done to improve security? Alibis are melting in the heat of popular anger.

The mathematics has gone awry: things don't add up. Ever since UPA survived the Lok Sabha vote on the nuclear deal three years ago, the Government has insisted, despite dramatic TV footage, that no MP was paid to switch sides. If that is true then why is Amar Singh in jail? The Delhi police, which reports to home minister P. Chidambaram, believes Amar Singh paid money to MPs. On whose behalf did he do so? Amar Singh is not a philanthropist. If Amar Singh is guilty, he cannot be guilty alone. Is he yet another scapegoat in a lengthening queue?

Silence can stem a stain, but not erase it.

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