Polls make Modi look at Plan B for Indo-Bangla deal

The BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Photograph: AP

NEW DELHI: BJP’s electoral ambitions may force a major change in a landmark diplomatic initiative being pursued by the Modi government.

BJP brass considers Assam, a major Northeastern state that goes to polls next year, a winning prospect and these poll calculations may result in delinking Assam from the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh for now.

ET spoke to several senior officials as well as BJP leaders for this report. Questions to the PMO didn’t receive any response. Officials and politicians who spoke to ET did so on the condition they not be identified. The Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) involves Assam, Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya on the Indian side.As agreed upon through several rounds of negotiations started during UPA-II, Assam was set to lose land -around 268 acres -in the final arrangement. Assam giving up land is part of settling a disputed 6.1 km stretch that’s been with Bangladesh since Partition.

This is an emotive issue in Assam’s often polarised and volatile politics and BJP’s Assam unit has always opposed the land loss. After UPA-II reached an agreement with Dhaka on the border, BJP in Assam had taken to the streets and made it into a matter of Assamese pride.

BJP won 7 out of Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha seats and an impressive 36.5% vote share in the 2014 general elections. Congress, with three seats and a 29.6% vote share, came a poor second. BJP also won recent civic polls in the state. The saffron party hopes to dislodge Congress, which has won three assembly elections, from Guwahati next year.

Officials said the government is considering the option of keeping Assam out of LBA for now and settling the West Bengal and Meghalaya segments of the Indo-Bangladesh border. One senior official said the “matter is being discussed at the highest level…including possible political fallouts…a final decision will be taken after the prime minister returns from his current foreign tour”.

Dhaka open to tweaking deal

ET has learnt that New Delhi has taken up the issue of keeping Assam out of the border agreement and that Dhaka is open to considering such an adjustment if New Delhi feels that’s the only way to seal the deal.

The current thinking, officials said, is aimed at working out a deal that allows Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Bangladesh in June and operationalise the border agreement. The Land Boundary Agreement was signed by Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh in 2011 but is yet to be ratified. Parliamentary okay via a constitutional amendment Bill is required for ratifying the boundary agreement.

Officials said the Bill may be tabled in Parliament when the budget session reconvenes on April 20 after the current recess. The Bill has already been cleared by the Standing Committee on External Affairs, which recommended it be tabled at the earliest.

Modi’s views on the Assam component of LBA have not always been in sync with BJP Assam unit’s. At a rally last December, six months after he became PM, Modi publicly spoke in the favour of the land swap deal, assuring the state that there would be “no compromise in Assam’s security” and adding that “it may seem a loss for Assam but I will make such arrangements that it benefits Assam in the long run”.

State unit ‘surprised’

BJP leaders in the Assam unit said the PM’s views had taken the state leadership “by surprise” and their concerns had been communicated through the party hierarchy. These leaders said talks between the party and the government on this issue have been continuing since then.

 The effort has been to allow New Delhi reach an agreement with Dhaka while keeping BJP’s poll prospects in Assam undamaged, a state BJP leader said. He said BJP president Amit Shah has been talking to the Assam unit on the issue.
“Any settlement of the boundary may help curb illegal immigration and even terrorism and smuggling, but then land is always an emotive issue,” BJP state president Siddhartha Bhattacharya told ET. When asked about keeping Assam out of LBA, he said: “I am not aware of this but we will have to accept whatever is decided.”
People familiar with the issue also said the government will be watching the response of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to an LBA that keeps Assam out but keeps Bengal in. Banerjee had opposed LBA when it was being negotiated by UPA-II.
Officials said they hoped the Bengal CM, who has been assured that the Centre will bear the cost of compensation and resettlement after LBA is ratified, won’t present a major political stumbling block.