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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 15

Indo-US Nuclear Deal: Federalise Foreign Policy

Saturday 29 March 2008, by S K Jain


The Indo-US nuclear deal has generated enough heat to cloud the stability of the Congress-led UPA Government. Without going into the argument over whether the nuclear deal is in or against our national interest, it has raised an important issue of federalisation of the foreign policy and treaty making power of the Central Government.

The Constitution of India gives the Central Government in New Delhi virtually exclusive jurisdiction over issues of foreign and defence policy. In practice too the Central Government has exercised strong control over India’s external relations since the Constitution come into force in 1950. The constituent units (States) have, with some notable exceptions, played little role in the formulation or implementation of the country’s foreign relations. This centralised control has begun to, however, weaken over the past decades or so mainly due to the coalition governments at the Centre. This gradual loosening of the centralised control on foreign policy, de facto if not de jure, makes a case for the federalisation of our foreign policy.

The Indo-US nuclear deal has provided the space for a debate as to what should be the role of federating units in the making and implementing of foreign policy. Not long ago the prevailing view was that while a federation is a reflection of a country’s unity in diversity, a federal state is no less entitled than a unitary one to speak with one voice in the international sphere and pursue a unified foreign policy. However, this view is increasingly being challenged and a contrary view is emerging that the foreign policy of a federal country ought to reflect its internal diversity meaning thereby that the federating units should also have a role to play in the foreign policy sphere.

It is a fact that rapid globalisation and liberalisation have led the Central Government to sign several international treaties with little or no consultation with the States. Conflicts arise when the interests of the Centre differ from those of the States having political parties in governments different from those at the Centre. Though the treaty making power lies with the Centre, it should consult the States before signing agreements, commercial/non-commercial, particularly that affect State jurisdiction under the Constitution. Moreover, the process of consultation needs to be institutionalised in the federal polity of India.

It is suggested here that the UPA Government, led by Dr Manmohan Singh, should convene a meeting of the Inter-State Council and take its opinion on the controversial Indo-US nuclear deal. Once the Union Government gets the nod of the ISC, it will be easier to convince those who are opposing the deal since the deal has the support of a majority of the federating units. This may not only strengthen the hand of Central Government but also affirm faith in the federal polity of India.

One has to accept the fact that the Indian polity is more federated today than it was during the dominance of the one-party system. Not only have some of the State governments protested against the Union executive’s unilateralism in signing some international treaties and conventions, but they have also approached the Supreme Court of India to adjudicate in such matters. The politics of current federalism offers little hope that it is going to change in favour of a centralised federalism of the earlier years and demands that the interests of the State governments and different political parties be accommodated within a broad consultation framework in formulating and implementing the foreign policy and international treaties of the country for better results.

The author is a Reader in Political Science, Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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