In the latter half of 2011, the Indian government was on the verge of finalising an important water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh over the Teesta, a 414-kilometre-long river that orginates in Sikkim and swirls through the north of West Bengal before crossing the two countries’ border and merging with the Brahmaputra. After decades of delay, Delhi and Dhaka reached an agreement that, for 15 years, their respective sides would use 42.5 percent and 37.5 percent of the river’s waters during the dry season, with the remainder left unallocated until a later decision. The agreement was to be signed on a visit to Dhaka by the then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was to be accompanied by the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. Water is a state subject in India, so finalising the deal, and implementing it, would require the cooperation of West Bengal. But Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress, or TMC, was part of Singh’s ruling coalition, protested the agreement and refused to go. The Teesta helps irrigate nearly 120,000 hectares of farmland in West Bengal, and Banerjee declared that the proposed deal was against the interests of her state. The agreement was shelved.
Since then, the Teesta has remained a sticking point in the India-Bangladesh relationship. Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi prime minister, is scheduled to visit India in early April. Delhi is eager to use the occasion to finalise an agreement on India’s use of two ports in Bangladesh. But a Bangladeshi diplomat in Delhi told me that Dhaka is keen to resolve the Teesta issue before any agreement on the ports. According to the diplomat, Bangladesh wants 51 percent of the river’s water, with India being apportioned the remaining 49 percent. The TMC member of parliament Sugata Bose told the Economic Times in 2015 that Banerjee could agree to a 60:40 ratio, with the larger share going to India, “if interests of Bengal are protected.” A TMC leader told me last year that the central government would have to compensate West Bengal “adequately” in the event of any agreement, much in the way it was paid Rs 3,000 crore as part of the 2015 agreement between India and Bangladesh to exchange their enclaves on either side of the border.
How Banerjee positions herself now will be key in whether the two countries’ negotiations are successful. The TMC has, in the past, been a BJP ally, and Banerjee served as the railways minister in a government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But her present equation with the BJP, and with the central government under Narendra Modi, is starkly different. Although Banerjee was in Dhaka for Modi’s visit to the Bangladeshi capital in June 2015, after being assured that the Teesta deal was not on the agenda, she has since adopted a strikingly combative stance. After Modi’s demonetisation move in November, she took to the streets in Kolkata, Delhi, and elsewhere, slamming the prime minister for “working against the people, from the poor to the middle class.” She has somewhat softened her tone following the BJP’s landslide victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, but the battle between the TMC and the BJP continues on multiple fronts, of which the Teesta dispute is just one. Among the things at stake are Banerjee’s national aspirations, and the BJP’s desire to win power in West Bengal, where it has gained significant ground in the past decade.