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Role of states in shaping India’s foreign policy; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0117/ 2015

Courtesy: DNA India

The debate over what Narendra Modi achieved, beyond seeking to build on bilateral economic and trade relations, during his recent three-day visit to China is likely to continue until and unless the two countries take visible steps to narrow down their strategic differences. Beyond economic and business ties, where Modi has broken new ground is in involving the states to extend the evolving partnership. The big step in this direction is the launching of the India-China Forum of State Provincial Leaders in Beijing on May 15. Speaking at the launch function, where the Gujarat and Maharashtra Chief Ministers were present, Modi said that state governments could take decisions more quickly. “These interactions also make the state governments more sensitive and aware of the international dynamics and requirements,” he added.

This means that like cities — in the wake of “sister city” agreements — and businesses, state governments, too, can directly develop lines of cooperation with China. While such a window of opportunities is welcome, this does not make the states real stakeholders in external relations or foreign policy. This only means that states have been roped in as enablers to speed up permissions and sanctions for economic, especially infrastructure, projects. Although the Forum’s creation is a significant step in taking forward India’s relationship with China, the fact remains that states cannot become true, and effective, stakeholders in relations with neighbours unless they have a say and are consulted in the shaping of policy. For this to happen, there needs to be federalisation — in policy formulation, decision-making and implementation.

Given today’s Centre-state relations with different political parties in office at the Centre and states, such federalisation, ie, involving the states, is critical to successful execution of policy. There should be a consultative mechanism for the MEA to engage with states so that diplomacy, instead of being hostage to regional politics, is in tune with regional interests. Failure to get the state governments on board can have serious negative consequences. The most obvious situation that comes to mind is India’s relations with Sri Lanka, on which the Centre, the state government and regional parties are always at odds. Even a party (Congress) in office at the Centre resorts to duplicity — where the government adopted a line, which Union ministers opposed publicly, to pander to “Tamil sentiments”. Thus, the Centre’s approach, policy and dealings with Sri Lanka tend to be often dictated by not only Tamil parties but also regional compulsions of the “national” party in office. Taking the cue from Tamil Nadu, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee scuttled the signing of the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and the Teesta river waters accord in 2013. The state government’s position was exploited by the BJP, then in the opposition, for its own obstructive politics. When the LBA Bill — exactly the same that the UPA had presented in the House in December 2013 — was passed by Parliament in the first week of this month, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj candidly confessed: “Manmohan Singh is the one who started the whole thing. I have merely completed the task”. This time the Congress and BJP joined hands to pass the Bill. Which shows that, regardless of their differences, generally they are one when it comes to foreign policy. It is time that other (regional) parties are also brought on board to be part of such consensus.

(The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator)

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