Originally Published 2012-03-27 00:00:00 Published on Mar 27, 2012
There is no doubt that federalism and the increasing role of states in foreign policy is a reality and not something detrimental. It is important, however, to deal with this reality in a mature and pro-active manner.
Foreign policy cannot be so chaotic
SUSTAINED PRESSURE by coalition partners of the UPA, especially the DMK and TMC, and the threat to pull out from the coalition has left New Delhi with no option but to helplessly relent. Some examples which stand out in the domestic realm are the issue of FDI in retail which West Bengal CM and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee opposed tooth and nail forcing the central government to backtrack. The TMC supremo along with Chief Ministers of other Non-Congress states who are not allies of the government opposed the setting up of the NCTC. The most recent example of Banerjee having her way is the rollback in railway fares, and the removal of her party member Dinesh Trivedi from the Railway Ministry - per cent replacing him with Mukul Roy, also of the TMC.

In the domain of foreign policy, Banerjee opposed the Teesta River Water treaty, on the pretext that it was unfair to West Bengal, much to the embarassment of New Delhi and the disappointment of Dhaka. Pressure by the ruling AIADMK and the government’s ally the opposition DMK in the state resulted in the government supporting a UN resolution against Sri Lanka - per cent much to its chagrin.

All these developments bring to light the increasing relevance of provincial governments and regional parties in Indian polity. The dismal performance by the Congress Party in the recently held assembly elections has further weakened its position and to ensure the survival of the UPA, it is imperative to keep the allies in good humour.

While there should be absolutely no doubt that the aspirations of these provinces need to be respected and all coalition partners should be treated with the utmost respect. It is imperative that there is a mechanism which ensures better coordination between states and central governments on all crucial issues, such as distribution of natural resources, anti-terror mechanisms and economic issues so that centre-state differences do not paralyse policymaking.

Coordination between the centre and the states is all the more necessary now in the domain of foreign policy. With the increasing role of border-states in India’s neighbourhood ties in the East, West and South it is imperative for the centre and states to have an understanding of each other’s perceptions on matters of national importance. While the final decision will have to take into account both national interest and public opinion in these states, consultations would definitely help in narrowing the schisms and trust deficit between New Delhi and the state capitals.

In the context of coalition politics, it is important that coalition partners iron out differences over foreign policy issues through the preparation of a common vision statement. While there are issues which cannot be planned in advance, there are certain foreign policy issues, especially in the context of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which clearly show a divergence between the Congress and the regional allies. While differences in a democracy are inevitable, a middle path should be evolved at the time of negotiating an alliance, so that last-minute tantrums by allies like Mamata over the Teesta Water Treaty do not damage India’s external credibility.

Thirdly, it is also important for the central government to give equal importance to states which do not have the numbers and political relevance. For example, the demands in states such as Manipur for opening up borders with Myanmar or Tripura to open up borders with Bangladesh should be equally high on the agenda. Similarly, reasonable demands of states such as Punjab for more connectivity with Pakistan which tend to get ignored because they do not make good media stories should be given due importance.

There is no doubt that federalism and the increasing role of states in foreign policy is a reality and not something detrimental. It is important, however, to deal with this reality in a mature and pro-active manner and not just clumsily react at the eleventh hour - per cent as is the case now. On certain foreign policy issues where the centre and states are not in sync, New Delhi looks as if it is at sea and gives in only to survive in power.

Regional satraps and governments too need to take up issues with New Delhi at the appropriate moment, rather than on public platforms, and not sensationalise issues to enhance their political stature, as is the case with Mamata Banerjee. Similarly, the DMK also pressurises the central government only at election time or in a bid to outdo the ruling AIADMK. Neither has come up with a mechanism for better coordination with New Delhi on sensitive issues. Federalism and coalition politics are not a threat but inept handling is.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: thetehelka.com
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