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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 26, June 15, 2013

Foreign Policy and the Federal Imprint

Saturday 15 June 2013


by Tridivesh Singh Maini and Arko Dasgupta

Both the main political outfits of Tamil Nadu, the ruling AIADMK and Opposition DMK, recently competed with each other in taking a belligerent stand vis-à-vis Sri Lanka.

While the latter pulled out of the UPA coalition, because it felt New Delhi had approved a watered-down UN resolution to look into alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan Army during their campaign against the LTTE in 2009, the ruling party was not to be left far behind with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa refusing to allow Chennai to host IPL matches having Sri Lankan cricketers in the team line-ups.

These developments, along with the intransigence exhibited by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal over the implementation of the Teesta Treaty in the past, raise a larger question of how the Central Government should deal with the intervention of State governments in foreign policy—traditionally handled by the Centre—and also whether this trend is detrimental to India’s national interests.

While it is fashionable to be dismissive of State participation in foreign policy and also to simplistically attribute this current trend to coalition politics, it is imperative to keep in mind a few points. Firstly, State intervention in foreign policy need not necessarily be a bad thing as is frequently argued by some scholars and commentators in the print and electronic media. It is a complex and diverse phenomenon which needs to be analysed in detail. While it should be conceded that while Mamata Banerjee would henceforth do well to remember that Entry 14 of the Union List of the Seventh Schedule to the Indian Constitution states that “entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing of treaties, agreements and conventions with foreign countries” is the Centre’s prerogative, the reality on the ground is often complex and hard to construe in black and white terms.

In the larger context, if State participation in foreign policy was a negative trend, how would one explain the fact that there are States in the Union that want to play a more constructive

role in relation to their immediate international neighbours? Tripura, for example, has been enthusiastic about opening borders with Bangladesh. Similarly, Punjab has been upbeat about closer ties with Pakistan due to the potential economic benefits that such a scenario will hold for the State. It would be pertinent to point out that both these States are governed by non-Congress, non-UPA parties—the Left and Shiromani Akali Dal respectively. States such as Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, which receive no attention in the national media, have also been keen for more porous borders with Myanmar.

It is worthwhile to understand that partici-pation of sub-regions, provinces, and landers as a global phenomenon has been classified in various terms. While John Kincaid has called it ‘Constituent Diplomacy’, others have labelled it ‘Para-Diplomacy’. Panayotis Soldatos was the first to use the latter term; other scholars such as Duchacek and Andrew Lecours have done extensive work on the issue. The key difference between the two approaches, according to scholars such as Kincaid himself, is that the latter approach legitimises the dominance of Central governments over sub-regional entities in the realm of foreign policy. In a chapter, ‘Constituent Diplomacy in Federal Polities and the Nation-State: Conflict and Co-operation’ contributed for Federalism and International Relations: The Role of Subnational Units (editors Michelmann and Soldatos), Kincaid (1990:74) argues:

constituent diplomacy is intended as a neutral descriptor, one that avoids the implication that the activities of constituent governments are necessarily inferior, ancillary, or supplemental to the ‘high polities’ of nation-state diplomacy.

Both approaches are relevant for India, because if one were to see the clout of States like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in foreign policy, they certainly do not take orders from the Centre. Yet, other States with lesser numbers in Parliament which are keen to influence foreign policy albeit in a different ways—such as Tripura and Punjab—are unable to do so.

Differences between the Central and State governments, too, are fairly common across the world and in no way unique to India. In a book titled, Localising Foreign Policy: Non-Central Governments and Multi-layered Diplomacy, an interesting point is made with regard to differences between US states and the Federal Government on issues pertaining to trade policy. While Central governments support trade promotion by sub-regional units, they are averse to interference in trade policy. (Brian Hocking 1993:181)

In India, the differences between the Centre and States are, of course, of a different nature. One of the interesting aspects is that while interactions with countries outside the neighbourhood do not result in any controversy, interactions with countries within the neighbourhood seem to create trouble. So reaching out to the ASEAN countries, Europe and the US has become common due to the aggressive economic diplomacy pursued by the States and the new trend of global investors summits. On the other hand, in Federalism and International Relations: The Role of Subnational Units, it has been argued that in Europe and North America, ties with bordering countries are not a cause of contention between Centre and States. It is relations with other countries which cause differences. Over the past two decades since the publication of the work, however, there have been numerous changes and para-diplomacy with bordering countries too has thrown up challenges in the Western world as well.

It is time for scholars and analysts to look at not only the role of State Governments in the

domain of foreign policy from a broader perspective but also grasp the nuance in the nature of their demands. No one is asking to buttress the previously mentioned blustery of the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. At the same time, however, one must remember to judge each individual case on its own merits. A straitjacketed formula will not serve our purpose. Currently, all obstructionist interventions are highlighted, while the positive ones are conveniently ignored.

New Delhi needs to develop an effective mechanism to avoid such embarrassments in future.

Regular consultations with States abutting international boundaries, and the setting up of committees could be a step in the right direction. Perhaps New Delhi could take a cue from Germany where sub-regional units or Landers are consulted by the Central Government on all matters pertaining to foreign policy. Brian Hocking (1993:184) makes a relevant point, “...Even where the authority of Bonn is undisputed, the combined considerations of political prudence together with the need to consult local expertise, help to ensure that the Landers are consulted before a federal stance on a treaty is adopted.”

To this end, States bordering Pakistan may be grouped into one such committee and those bordering Bangladesh into another, and so on. It is also time that trade with bordering countries should be de-hyphenated from security issues. If one were to look at China, its border provinces such as Yunnan and Xinjiang in spite of facing security challenges, have become the former’s bridge to its neighbouring countries. Yunnan, for example, has come together with five bordering South-East Asian states for the Greater Mekong Subregion project and is well connected with Myanmar. Xinjiang, which neighbours eight countries including Afgha-nistan, is China’s interface with Central and South Asia.

Apart from this, it may also not be a bad idea to examine the proposal of bifurcating the MEA into a diplomacy and a trade wing as has been mooted by many including, most recently, the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. This could make trade relations with other countries less tedious. If one looks at the engagement between New Delhi and Islamabad from April 2011 onwards, it was driven by the Commerce Secretaries of both sides, and even those sceptical about engagement between both countries would agree that it proved to be effective in not only changing mindsets with regard to trade on both sides, but also setting specific targets.

Most importantly, there was good coordination and communication between New Delhi and the Punjab Government. While it is true that Pakistan is yet to grant us the MFN status, the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Attari has definitely given a fillip to trade.

In conclusion, it is time to accept the reality of state participation in foreign policy. The issue is not whether it is good or bad, but the the challenge is making it effective.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based columnist and independent foreign policy analyst. Arko Dasgupta is a postgraduate student at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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