By making a U-turn and publicly declaring his intention to fully implement the crucial Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally laid to rest apprehensions that the Bharatiya Janata Party would allow narrow political posturing to come in the way of India's national interests.
These apprehensions were not imaginary. In December 2013, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley, now Modi's Finance and Information & Broadcasting Minister, went out of his way to oppose implementation of the LBA, which involves the swapping of 162 small bits of territory between India and Bangladesh - so-called "adversely-held enclaves" - so that the process of border demarcation could be completed. In a letter to the Secretary of the Rajya Sabha declaring his opposition to the tabling of the necessary legislation, Jaitley made an outrageous claim: that the proposed exchange of territory would "violate the basic structure of the Constitution".
"My opposition", he wrote, "is based on the ground that post-1973 when the basic structure doctrine was introduced by the Supreme Court, the territory of India is an inherent part of the basic structure of the Constitution. Territory of India is a part of the Constitution. It cannot be reduced or altered by an amendment to the Constitution."
Thanks to this BJP stand and the UPA government's lack of political confidence in defending an agreement it had signed with Bangladesh in 2011 during Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka, the proposed 119th Amendment to the Constitution bill was never passed. But Modi's statements in Assam on Sunday suggest his government will now fully back the bill's passage. He urged the people of Assam not to have apprehensions about any loss of territory, reminding them that India would strengthen itself through the process of reaching an agreement with an important neighbour.
India's failure to deliver on either the LBA or the Teesta Water Agreement of 2011 was a major source of embarrassment for the Awami League government in Bangladesh, which had opened the doors to security cooperation with New Delhi.
Jettisoning the 'Jaitley line' on the land boundary agreement will allow Modi to raise India-Bangladesh ties to a new level. But for this to happen, he must also be prepared to deliver on the Teesta agreement and, in general, be willing to accommodate Dhaka's legitimate concerns as a lower riparian. Indeed, the Modi government should try and establish a water-sharing culture between India and Bangladesh that is a model for how upper and lower riparians should behave. Once the two countries are on the same bilateral page on river waters, they would be in a stronger position to insist that China -- whose dam construction plans in the upper stretches of the Brahmaputra/Yarlung Tsangpo are causing much anxiety in both Dhaka and Delhi - not act unilaterally to interrupt or modify a flow that both countries depend on for their own survival.
There is, of course, one more shift Modi will have to effect if he truly wants to chart a new course with Bangladesh: he and the BJP must drop their poisonous, sharp-edged rhetoric about undocumented Bangladeshi migrants. Instead, he should try and evolve out-of-the-box solutions to the demand for Bangladeshi labour within India. The key policy goal has to be to find ways to regulate and channelize the influx of migrant labour rather than demonizing migrants as "infiltrators" and then letting their presence remain unregulated.
Regulating migration means according it a legal status but it also means a migrant no longer needs to acquire the trappings of Indian citizenship (eg. a ration card, aadhaar number or even a voter card) in order to live and work legally in India.
Migration is a fact of life, especially in this globalized world of ours. Many Indians work in Bangladesh and the amount they repatriate adds up to nearly two-thirds the amount that Bangladeshis legally repatriate from India to their home. Lopsided growth has seen large-scale labour migration within India, creating temporary or sectoral shortages in some low-wage parts of the country that Bangladeshi migrants are increasingly filling. Any policy that decriminalizes or at least regulates migrant labour will automatically reduce the social tension that migration can sometimes cause.
Prime Minister Modi has done well to take a step in the direction of settling India's long and complicated boundary with Bangladesh. He must now turn his attention to finding a sensible solution to the movement of water and people across it.
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