How Federal Is The Indian Foreign Policy?

Posted by Vasundhara Sinha in Politics, Staff Picks
February 16, 2017

The ideas and practices of democracy and federalism in India have fundamentally changed from the pre-liberalisation period to the post-liberalisation period. Against this backdrop, it is important to keep in mind that India has witnessed new forms of ‘identity assertions’ in its various states during the period of economic transformation in the last two decades. Hence, populism is on the rise – and in this context, the issue of federalism has come back. Several regional parties are now talking about federalism, demanding more taxes from the centre and asking for loans. Keeping in mind the fact that most Central governments in the past two decades, apart from the current one, have been coalition ones – one can now witness a situation of ‘asymmetric federalism’.

Likewise, various ministers are now talking about ‘cooperative federalism’. Various questions can be raised about the nature of this ‘cooperative federalism’. Will it be authoritarian or democratic? Will it discard the ‘unitary bias’ of our constitution, and reevaluate the option of giving more powers to the states? Does this mean that the states also need to be involved and consulted on the ‘external affairs’ that affect them?

It must be kept in mind that the federal structure of a country is one of the most important factors that conditions its foreign policy. Since the federal states are supposed to act as a unitary actor in the international community, the domestic political structure also enables the federal states to influence foreign policy in specified areas. In this era of globalisation, the boundaries within the domestic policy and foreign policy seem to be more fragile. It is therefore necessary to take foreign policy decisions by keeping domestic issues in mind.

For decades, the Indian foreign policy has has been determined solely by the Union government. The States were not consulted for the making of foreign policy. But the recent creation of the States Division in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on October 2014 has changed the power game in determining India’s foreign policy. Article 246 of the Indian Constitution divides legislative powers of the country into three categories, or lists: the Union list (items on which the Central government alone can make laws), the State list (items on which only State governments can make laws), and the Concurrent list (items on which both the Union and State governments can enact legislation, though the writ of the central government prevails in case of a conflict). Almost all legislative matters related to foreign policy, security, and defence come under the Union list. Moreover, international trade and even inter-state trade come within the mandate of the Union government.

Thus, we see that there is very little scope for the State governments to play a part in determining the foreign policy. We should acknowledge the fact that even though the Central government has the final say in the making of any foreign policy, the states should be consulted considering the fact that the policy might have an effect on them in some way or the other. David M. Malone in his book, “Does the Elephant Dance?: Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy”, has rightly pointed out that India faces numerous contemporary security challenges, mostly internal, and that this is nothing new. Since domestic politics play a major role in determining which security challenges Indians believe to be the most pressing, it is important to lay emphasis on the internal factors in shaping India’s foreign policy.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Prime Minister and the main architect of India’s foreign policy, played a very hegemonic role in determining the foreign policy of India. This was partly because of his charismatic personality and the undivided support which he enjoyed among the Indians just after the country got independence. It was also because of the dominance and popularity of the National Congress Party in almost every state of India, back then. But the dominance of a single party is unimaginable in the India of today.

We are living in the era of coalition politics. There was an ample amount of political centralisation from the 1940s till the late 1960s. With the onset of 1970, however, Congress gradually began to lose its popularity, along with a steady rise in a number of regional parties. Demands from the states began to increase, and since then, all Central governments have been formed by the coalition of several political parties, apart from the current government led by Narendra Modi. Apart from coalition politics, the other major factor which gradually reduced the supremacy of the Central government was economic liberalisation, which weakened the centre’s role in economic activities.

Narendra Modi, when he was a prime-ministerial candidate, talked frequently about the need for a greater role of states in managing foreign policy, particularly in India’s economic diplomacy. The current government led by Modi does not perceive the involvement of states in foreign affairs as a negative form of interference. Instead, it’s now considered to be useful for pursuing the country’s national interests abroad. The creation of the States Division within the Ministry of External Affairs is indicative of this new willingness to incorporate regional voices on foreign policy matters.

Keeping these conditions in mind, the concept of paradiplomacy becomes very relevant here. However, paradiplomacy undermines the ‘international coherence’ of the country, and it becomes apparent that the country will no longer speak with one voice on the international stage. It is often forgotten that regional governments can also operate beyond the borders and the fact they can be international actors too. This phenomenon of regional governments developing international relations, often called paradiplomacy, has been most visible in the industrialised liberal democracies of the West. The notion of paradiplomacy or ‘constituent diplomacy’ was first proposed by the American scholar, John Kinciad, in 1990, and since then, this concept has attracted the attention of various political scientists and foreign-affairs experts. Economic paradiplomacy, particularly, has gained a lot of prominence in this era of globalisation and technical advancement, in countries like USA, Canada and Belgium, even quasi-federal states like Spain, and in non-federal states like Japan as well.

A few distinct models of paradiplomacy are practised around the world, which are all successful at the promotion of Foreign direct investment (FDI). State leaders are undertaking a host of international interactions to attract investment and create jobs in their states. For this particular reason paradiplomacy in India becomes of utmost importance because India currently is struggling for FDI. Also, if ‘The Make in India’ initiative of Modi government is to be successful, paradiplomacy might be useful.

Happymon Jacob has rightly pointed out in his article, “Putting the Periphery at the Centre: Indian states’ role in Foreign Policy”, that some of the key areas of foreign policy engagement by Indian states include foreign, economic, resource management and security concerns.

If we look back to the onset of liberalisation, we will see that a number of states had actively participated in acquiring FDI from abroad, especially states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. For instance, when China recently invited India to send a team of senior leaders to their country to improve bilateral relations, the Ministry of External Affairs suggested that Naidu lead the delegation on behalf of the Centre. The Ministry of External Affairs had written a letter to Mr. Chandrababu Naidu, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, informing him about the tour from April 1 to April 6, 2015, and requested him to lead the delegation, which was accepted by him.

Naidu and his colleagues had been given the responsibility to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries. It was also evident that Naidu wanted to use this visit to meet business giants in China, to present opportunities available for them in Andra Pradesh. There were a total of 29 MoUs (Memorandums of Understanding) signed during this visit. Naidu also led a 13-member delegation to China from June 26, 2016, to pursue investments into the state and also explore possible tie-ups for the development of capital city of Andra Pradesh, Amaravati. He attended the World Economic Forum’s 10th annual meeting of New Champions in Tianjin city. These are some excellent examples of how states are actively taking part in foreign economic engagements.

West Bengal becomes a key player when it comes to the discussion of the role of states in resource management. The Teesta flows through the northern part of West Bengal in India before entering Bangladesh. As per the agreement of 2011, the two sides had agreed to share the river’s water equally. The Teesta deal, however, had faced obstacles since September 2011, when Mamata Banerjee had agreed to visit Dhaka with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but had opted out of the trip opposing the agreement. The primary issue at stake was the assurance of availability of water for North Bengal. Since the well-being of the people of West Bengal is of utmost priority for Mamata, her claim was that the deal must benefit everybody. Mamata Banerjee’s dropping out of the Prime Ministerial delegation at the last minute in September 2011, thereby stopping the treaty from being signed, shows that the states can have a direct influence on the decision-making process of India’s foreign affairs.

The political considerations of a state can also hamper the Centre’s decision on a specific foreign policy. The best example of this was the DMK party chief’s demand for India to introduce certain conditions in the US-led resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which wanted the Sri Lankan government to investigate war crimes committed by its army against the rebels of LTTE in 2009. The DMK party chief wanted the inclusion of the word ‘genocide’ in the UNHRC resolution, and also wanted an international probe into the excesses of the Sri Lankan army. The DMK exited from the UPA-II government, due to this issue.

The Central government, therefore, had to depart from its normal practice of not voting for country-specific resolutions, because of the pressure from a handful of politicians from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, who were concerned about Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. In this context, it must be kept in mind that this was the result of the rivalry between the DMK and the AIADMK, and both parties used their alliances and disputes with the party in power in Delhi to further their quest for ‘state primacy‘. Thus, it becomes evident that in the era of coalition politics in India, the role of states in the planning of foreign policy becomes quite significant, indeed.

Even though states have shown great interest in participating in decisions which have international importance, they are often not consulted while taking significant decisions. One such example would be of the dispute regarding the Sir Creek area between Indian and Pakistan. Narendra Modi wrote a letter to Manmohan Singh, in which he alleged that Gujarat was not consulted regarding the resolution of this issue and also intimated him of the possible negative consequences of opening up the Gujarat border to Pakistan. He also mentioned that New Delhi should not decide to hand over Sir Creek to Pakistan, as it might be a threat to the citizens of Gujarat. Modi also expressed concerns regarding the oil and gas reserves of Kutch and Saurashtra, which might be beneficial to India in near future.

Another example where the Centre went against the wishes of the state was when Manmohan Singh expressed his willingness to open the Munabao-Khokhrapar land route for trade. However, the Rajasthan government was not pro-active in lobbying with the Central government for making closer trade links with Pakistan. Moreover, the Rajasthan government was not enthusiastic because it feared a ‘Hindu exodus‘ from Sindh, as Pakistan was failing to protect its Hindu minorities at that time.

When the discussion is on whether the interests of the citizens of the states concerned are being kept in mind or not, the analysis would remain incomplete without addressing the Kashmir issue. India has been facing conflicts in Kashmir since 1947. India has been curbing political space for Kashmiris for a long time now by keeping massively popular Hurriyat leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Shabir Shah  under repeated detention. This has further damaged its reputation with the local population. For India to end this long conflict with Kashmiris, it must allow political space for Kashmiris. It must do away with its draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Public Safety Act. India should work with Kashmiris to reach a viable solution. It would not be wrong to claim that India’s trouble with its handling of the Kashmir issue is majorly because it hardly takes the concerns of the Kashmiris into account.

Modi chaired a meeting post the attack in Uri to review the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. The meeting was attended by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Army Chief Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag and other senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Defence Ministry and the Home Ministry. However, it is very significant to note here that the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, was not called or even consulted regarding this matter.

It cannot be denied that Modi did not meet the state leader or discuss the situation in Kashmir with her – he even met a delegation of opposition parties from Jammu and Kashmir led by former chief minister Omar Abdullah – but what is important to note here is that ultimate decision of how to handle this crisis was ultimately made by the Prime Minister and the officials of the PMO. In the wake of the surgical strikes by Indian army, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti claimed that the people of Jammu and Kashmir have suffered immensely due to the violence. According to her, India and Pakistan must open channels of communication to avoid further unrest. Following the attack, no attempt was made to resume communication with Pakistan.

In contrast to this, in the wake of the terror attack in Dhaka in July 2016, the five border states of West Bengal, Assam, Mizoram, Tripura, and Meghalaya were alerted and the respective state police departments and the Border Security Force worked together to combat the crisis. Thus, there is clearly a need for the active participation of the border states in international matters, especially when particular international events directly affect the border states.

Would A Federal Foreign Policy Be A Boon Or Bane For India?

It is very significant for students of political science to examine international politics carefully, before coming to any conclusion as to whether the states should have more power in deciding foreign policy decisions or not. It is indeed true that a certain degree of involvement of the states is always beneficial, especially when the decision may have direct implications on the state. However, at the same time, we must keep in mind that there must have been a reason why the makers of our constitution did not give utmost power to the State governments in taking decisions on the international platform. We cannot deny that the heads of the states have often been consulted before chalking out a major international policy, but the examples cited also clearly show that the Central government often displays the illusion that it is considering the opinions of the states very seriously, while the decision is ultimately taken only by the Union government. The opinions of the states are given so little weightage that they hardly matter.

However, many might be of the opinion that while acting according to the interests of the states and of the common citizens might create havoc and a lot of confusion – ignoring the interests of the common citizens, straightaway, would be a violation of their democratic rights. Therefore, today’s leaders have also become followers, because individuals are becoming increasingly aware that their actions can have consequences.

Considering that there are always two sides to a coin, including the heads of states in foreign policy decisions might have disastrous effects, because India is a huge country. Chaos might prevail if the heads of the states are given adequate power to have a decisive say on international matters.

Even against this backdrop, we cannot afford to forget that India might be a federal unity in spirit, but the reality is quite opposite. In a country where the fight between two states gets so ugly that the security forces have to open fire on mobs, giving power to states for deciding international issues might not only prove to be dangerous, but also foolish. The recent incident of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu locked in a Supreme Court battle over sharing water from the river Cauvery is an example of how ugly the disputes between various Indian states can get.

Moreover, acknowledging the honest opinion of citizens might be the final nail in the coffin. Although all politics is now ‘glocal’ (global and local) – and it is true that we must pay attention to what goes on within a state – we must keep in mind that India has witnessed mostly coalition governments, and there is an immense number of rivalries between the Chief Ministers of states and the Prime Minister – particularly when the parties in power at the State level and at the Centre are different.

Issues of national importance like the recent demonetisation in India has made several opposition parties in India gang-up against Modi. Keeping this in mind, it might be significant to quote the headlines of a daily newspaper, The Indian Express, which read, ‘Roll back or face unrest: Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee to Government’. With reports of distress coming in from villages and small towns and anger boiling over the cash crunch, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal shared the stage, warning of unrest if the demonetization exercise was not rolled back within three days.

A leader in India facing resistance from the heads of the states is a very common phenomenon. Therefore, a lot of thought must be put into this, especially when the issue is of international importance. It has recently been decided that Telengana is to get an External Affairs ministry, with K T Rama Rao being the first foreign minister of the state. It is going to have a separate ministry, which would work as an External Affairs ministry for the state, in coordination with the Foreign ministry of India. The draft of Telengana’s NRI policy recommends a separate secretariat for the new ministry. The purpose of such a ministry is to promote Telangana off-shore and attract investments.

Punjab and Kerala, which boast of having the maximum number of NRIs, also have similar ministries. Punjab’s deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal holds the portfolio of investment promotion, while Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan is in charge of Non-Resident Keralites Affairs department. This clearly gives the impression that the state is having its ‘separate’ foreign policy. It is also quite possible that this might follow up with Telangana announcing its own Defence ministry, by claiming that defending the state from the Naxals is its responsibility. It is a possibility that if the other states follow Telengana, it might lead to a ‘duplicity of functions’, resulting in utter chaos.

To sum up, I feel that giving power to the heads of the states for chalking out foreign policies is neither desirable nor possible. It is because they would not be able to reach a unanimous decision. At the same time, their opinions must be taken into account if the policies have direct implications for them.


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