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THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD

- New Delhi’s dilemma over a federal foreign policy

In India’s federal system, as stipulated in the Constitution, there is a clear demarcation of powers between the Centre and the states, and the subject of foreign policy vests exclusively with the Centre. Therefore, the conduct of Indian international relations is the sole responsibility of the government at the federal level. This is the practice followed by all federal democracies, such as the United States of America, Canada, Australia and Germany. For example, Washington overruled Judson Harmon’s doctrine of absolute sovereignty over natural resources in conceding Mexico’s claims for compensation on the Rio Grande, and Ottawa has deftly managed Quebec’s unceasing efforts to tilt the country towards the Francophonie by categorically asserting its right to treaty-making powers.

In the past, the external role of the Indian states was severely restricted; they were involved only in the implementation process, and that too, primarily in the conduct of cultural and economic relations. Currently, to New Delhi’s growing discomfiture, the intervention of the states has vastly increased, as revealed by the instances of the government succumbing to pressures from West Bengal on the draft accord with Bangladesh on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river, and from Tamil Nadu in regard to India’s vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

To some extent, this deviation from the Constitution’s prescriptions is indirectly New Delhi’s own fault. The ministry of external affairs has come to the conclusion that the making of foreign policy could no longer be confined within its four walls, since foreign and domestic policies are normally held to be two sides of the same coin. This conclusion led to the opinion that foreign policy expertise had to be more open to consultations and interactions with influential circles such as the media, non-resident Indians and civil society, especially in the form of business and academia. These connections are now reasonably well-established and growing stronger, the recent establishment of an Indian Association of International Studies being one more step in this direction.

The democratization of Indian foreign policy has emboldened state chief ministers to intrude into an arena which had heretofore been out of bounds to their approaches. These forays into international relations represent the rise of a new pattern: the involvement of the states in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy. At times, they are the result of strong personalities rising to the level of chief ministers who brook no dominance from New Delhi on any subject, and see foreign affairs as yet another area where they can make popular gains by publicly confronting the Centre. This is the consequence of a fractured federal policy floundering under the compulsions of coalition politics.

Several issues arise and require to be considered. Are these trends part of a larger context of devolution, with policy becoming more anchored in local and parochial considerations, and are such developments salutary and for the national benefit? How could regional political compulsions be balanced against the national interest, who would be the final arbiter of this, and which side should prevail in the event of a divergent opinion between the Centre and the state?

On paper, the formulation of foreign policy and the conduct of international relations remain the unique prerogative of the federal government. A feature of Indian diplomacy since Independence has been that it carries the prime minister’s imprimatur and conveys his or her wishes. Most of our premiers have initiated and implemented important foreign-policy initiatives personally, with positions contingent on two factors — personal predilections and political compulsions depending on their intellectual interests and actual authority within the political system.

Jawaharlal Nehru was a skilled communicator who wrote regular letters to the chief ministers, which covered not only domestic issues but international trends and how India was reacting to them. After Nehru, our prime ministers have remained the chief architects of foreign policy despite not matching Nehru’s dominant position domestically or internationally. The creation of a national security adviser in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time introduced a new dimension, which had an impact on the role of the foreign minister, but external affairs still remained squarely within the Centre’s sphere of competence.

No formal structure exists whereby the states can interact with the federal Centre or the external affairs ministry on foreign policy. The states are not permitted to have direct dealings with foreign countries and cannot open offices abroad — though there is a practice in some other federations like Canada and Australia to open provincial trade and cultural offices overseas. Our states have thus far been limited to two broad areas — culture and commerce, the latter mainly to promote inward investment. Absent from the opening of offices abroad, chief ministers have travelled to foreign countries to cultivate NRIs, hold cultural events and attract investment. Less frequently, chief ministers have been included in the prime minister’s visits abroad. But in essence, chief ministers play a fiduciary role on behalf of the Central government.

Two commonly held beliefs since Nehru’s time are that Indian foreign policy is consensual in nature and is an elitist exercise. But in India’s relations with its neighbours, domestic issues have now acquired a greater salience in India’s external policies. Kashmir is always a case in point, others are the Ganges waters with Bangladesh, and issues of citizenship and Kachativu in the case of Sri Lanka.

During Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in 2011, the position taken by West Bengal was blatantly frustrating for New Delhi. The concurrence of Mamata Banerjee’s government was critical for both the Teesta agreement and the land border ratification, and the chief minister’s refusal inflicted damage on our relations with Bangladesh, for which India will pay dearly, and was contrary to the expected behaviour of a coalition ally.

Similarly, India’s ties with Sri Lanka takes a tumble whenever the DMK or AIDMK, whether in power or the Opposition, adopts a contrary position on any bilateral subject, accompanied usually by histrionic extremism like threats of self-immolations. It becomes impossible for New Delhi to uncode the real popular mood of the Tamils, and it is the easiest option to succumb. Accordingly, foreign policy has become hostage to Tamil sub-national interests. In 2012 and again this year, due to Tamil opposition, President Rajapaksa’s visits were not accorded official status; members of parliament from Tamil Nadu withdrew from an Indian parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka; Sri Lankan air force trainees had to be moved from Tambaram air force station to Bangalore under pressure from the AIDMK, and a training course for 25 defence officials at DSSC Wellington was scrapped. Sri Lankan artists were also prevented from performing in Chennai, although ironically, people-to-people connectivity is a hallowed principle at the Saarc summits.

The UNHRC last year passed a resolution against Sri Lanka with India joining the US and Europe in voting for it, having been forced to do so by the DMK, which threatened to pull its ministers out of the federal coalition. Our attempted justification understandably did not cut any ice with Colombo, which retaliated by threatening to draw international attention to the potential of damage to the island if there was any accident at the nuclear site at Kudankulam. The DMK now say they want a move at the UN supporting a referendum in the north and east of Sri Lanka, which will present Delhi with yet another dilemma.

The Assam chief minister calls for the need to set up a Brahmaputra River Valley Authority including China, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Himachal Pradesh wants the Centre to grant liberal work-permits to Chinese workers to facilitate access to Chinese electrical equipment. The Punjab chief minister urges greater connectivity with Pakistan’s Punjab to be facilitated by liberalization of the visa regime, release of prisoners and enhanced commerce. All economics is global; all politics is local. So it proves with the entry of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, which has an obvious foreign affairs ingredient, and has forced the Centre to vest in the states the discretion whether or not to implement the policy, raising a question whether such an opt-out dispensation is WTO-compatible.

The federal Centre has become accommodative in spirit as a result of coalition politics, allowing national priorities to be overtaken by regional, sub-national and domestic politics. The emergence of regional blackmail, chief ministers imposing themselves on foreign policy, and conceding the right of veto to state governments, marks yet another shift of power from the Centre. This has placed domestic politics in command of the nations’ sensitive neighbourhood diplomacy, but India cannot afford a West Bengal, Punjab or Tamil Nadu foreign policy. Only a strong and principled prime minister can reassert the constitutional prerogative and retrieve lost ground.