Originally Published 2011-11-24 00:00:00 Published on Nov 24, 2011
The politics of Centre-State relations has been a powerful force in shaping India's foreign policy. India's rapid economic growth has furthermore given a new found influence to regional parties, leading to their disproportionate influence over the formulation of foreign policy.
Increasing influence of regional parties in foreign policy
Centre-State relations in India have undergone numerous transformations over the last decade. This has a lot to do with the increasing power of regional parties vis-a-vis national parties, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress. While there have been numerous experiments, regional parties have played a major role in the functioning of the current Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government since 2004. We also should not forget the crucial role of regional players in cobbling up a BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which ruled from 1998-2004.

During the era from independence until the 1980s where Congress was dominant, regional parties did take a firm stand on economic and political issues affecting centre-state relations. It is only fair to make the point that even legitimate grievances of regional parties were not given adequate attention in the mainstream. This in spite of the fact there were coalition experiments in 1977, 1989 and 1990. Demands for greater autonomy, both political and economic, were not taken seriously, with the mainstream political parties asserting that such changes would weaken the centre and have an adverse impact on India's political balance.

The first crucial move towards greater autonomy was inspired by the United Front experiment of 1996 and 1997.As a result of that experiment, and its emphasis on the devolution of greater economic and administrative autonomy to the states, India's centralised political structure witnessed a genuine shift towards becoming a more federalised entity. Coalition governments have become an accepted norm in India. With their firm commitment to granting more autonomy to states and transferring the vast majority of centrally-sponsored programmes to state governments, regional parties have successfully advanced the cause of federalism. Regional parties and regional aspirations were further strengthened as a consequence of the NDA and UPA coalition governments, which have had to depend heavily upon regional allies.

Increasing assertiveness of regional parties

The National Democratic Alliance coalitions had to give in on many occasions to allies such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) of Tamil Nadu, Telugu Desam of Andhra Pradesh and the National Conference of Jammu and Kashmir. The first NDA Government actually fell as a consequence of the DMK withdrawing its support. Similarly, there were differences over the issue of giving more autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, between the National Conference, an important constituent of the NDA, and the BJP, which headed the alliance.

The National Conference actually passed a resolution supporting greater autonomy on the floor of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly on 26 June 2000, which would have been dubbed 'secessionist' had it been done a decade earlier. More recently, National Conference, which is now part of the ruling UPA, has taken a firm stand on the issue of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Kashmir. The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, who heads an alliance government, has been publically demanding that this Act be withdrawn from certain parts of the state, much to the chagrin of his alliance partner, the Congress.

There are some more interesting trends that have emerged over the last decade. Regional parties that are not part of an alliance have also had their way and shared a good rapport with New Delhi. There is no better illustration of this than the People's Democratic Party (PDP) which, despite being an ally of the Congress Party, functioned in sync with the BJP-led NDA. This enabled it to get its demand for a bus route connecting Sri Nagar and Muzzafarabad on the Pakistani side of Kashmir. This was a long standing demand of Kashmiri political actors and it was quite unusual that the BJP Government, supposedly tough on issues involving Pakistan, gave in on such an important issue. The bus service,an idea mooted by the PDP, was inaugurated in 2005 by current Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh.

Regional aspirations

The other interesting trend is that even national parties in the states differ from their respective leadership over certain issues. A clear example is the river water dispute between Punjab and Haryana, where the Punjab unit of the Congress Party is at variance not only with the Haryana unit, but also New Delhi. In fact, the Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, annulled all river water agreements without the consent of the leadership, and was rebuked for doing so.

Other interesting examples include the differences between the Congress High Command and the Andhra Pradesh unit over the creation of Telengana. Similarly, the Tamil Nadu unit of the Congress Party was part of a resolution passed by the Tamil Nadu assembly, which sought amnesty for the killers of the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The fact that state units of national parties take different stands on vexatious issues, illustrates further the growing voice of regional influence in Indian political life.

Provincial participation in India's foreign policy

With the increasing role of states in policy formulation, their role in foreign policy has also increased. While it must be mentioned that individual states have long been pursuing economic diplomacy with other countries, the increased role of the states in India's broader relationships with its neighbours is a more recent phenomenon.

In certain cases, this is a consequence of coalition politics and the changing nature of Centre-State relations; for example, India's Sri Lanka policy, which could not ignore the demands of Tamil Nadu's main political entities, such as the DMK and ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam(AIADMK). Similarly, India's Bangladesh policy cannot ignore the concerns of West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, as the UPA is heavily dependent upon Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress. In fact, a water agreement with Bangladesh was put on hold because Ms Banerjee was not convinced by some of its provisions. Originally scheduled to accompany the Prime Minister on his visit to Bangladesh in September, Ms Banerjee ultimately refused to go. By the same token, India's Pakistan policy is heavily influenced by the ruling National Conference in Kashmir and the PDP. Both parties have been supporting continuous dialogue and engagement with Pakistan and more porous borders, to facilitate free trade and increased people to people contacts.

In other cases, non-alliance partners have not only put forward their case for initiatives, but received support from the central government. This received unflinching support from the BJP-led central government, even though the PDP was allied to the Congress Party. There are other examples where Chief Ministers belonging to the ruling party have received support to a certain point, but have been dissuaded on the basis of national security concerns. A good illustration of such a case is the interaction between the Indian and Pakistani controlled sections of the Punjab, initiated by the Punjab Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh. There are suggestions that initially Captain Singh received support from the central government, but some in the South bloc began to feel uncomfortable with these initiatives.

Apart from the change in centre-state relations and important political issues discussed above, the geographical relevance of border-states in regional connectivity has gained in importance in recent years, bringing them back to the forefront of regional diplomacy. For a long time, the images of borders in the South Asian context have been shaped by conflicts between nation-states and the activities of cross-border insurgents. In the recent past, the recognition of geo-strategic benefits has been transforming the way border-states are viewed; though the old thinking refuses to die out and is reinforced by events such as the Mumbai attack of November 2008. These changes add weight to the increased assertiveness of states.

The creation of regional and sub-regional groupings has raised the prospects for co-operation between border provinces. Ever since its advent nearly two and a half decades ago, the South Asian Regional Forum for Cooperation (SAARC) has been held hostage to bilateral disputes, principally between India and Pakistan. As a consequence, SAARC has not been able to facilitate co-operation between its member states. The realisation that border-states can develop only if they are opened up to neighbouring countries, has resulted in sub-regional initiatives, such as the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation Initiative (MGCI) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The logic of these initiatives has been reinforced by geography and cultural issues.

It is also noteworthy that the current UPA platform, headed by Dr Manmohan Singh, has encouraged an open approach to borders in both the east and west. In the East, there has been a push for enhanced connectivity between the north-eastern provinces and Bangladesh. In the west, there has been some progress in opening up the borders with Pakistan, for example in Kashmir and the two Punjab's located in India and Pakistan respectively.

Connectivity between border regions and its political relevance

In recent years, connectivity between the border regions of India and its South Asian neighbours has increased. After decades-old demands by the local authorities in Sikkim and the neighbouring Darjeeling Autonomous Hill Council, the Nathu La pass was re-opened in 2006. The first Amritsar-Lahore bus was mooted in 2006 and the bus from Amritsar to Nankana Sahib was started in the same year. Important steps have also been taken to enhance connectivity between Rajasthan and Sind, the two Kashmir's and the two Punjab's.

Connectivity between India's northeast states and Myanmar and Bangladesh has also increased. Other infrastructure developments that will improve connectivity are under construction. For many years, traders and local authorities in India's northeast have been demanding the reopening of the Stillwell Road, which links the region with China via Myanmar, but New Delhi remains averse to the idea. Similarly, connectivity with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan by rail and road has been increased. The recent visit of Prime Minister Singh to Bangladesh laid special emphasis on more connectivity with India's eastern neighbour. It was for this reason Prime Minister Singh was accompanied by the Chief Ministers of four north-eastern states.

The stress on making borders irrelevant without redrawing them has raised new hopes in the border regions. Political parties across the spectrum now seem to realise the relevance of border regions. An excellent example of this is the fact that connectivity projects initiated by the BJP-led NDA government were carried forward by the Congress-UPA government. For instance, the bus between the two Kashmir's and the train service between Rajasthan and Sind were policies launched by the NDA government.

Foreign policy issues have become important electoral issues in certain states. One example wasthe Punjab Assembly election in February 2007, where the Congress Party fought on the platform of closer relations between the two Punjab's. Similarly, in Rajasthan, the promise of a train service between Rajasthan and Sind was used successfully by Manvendra Singh, the BJP candidate from Barmer constituency, in the 2004 elections. The Tamil fishermen issue has for many years created tension between India and Sri Lanka. In the recent assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, one of the key issues in the campaign was the dispute over Kachchathivu Island, a small island owned by Sri Lanka but claimed by Tamil Nadu as part of India.

Role of states in foreign policy formulation

In part, this will hinge on the political influence of the state's ruling party – it will either have numerical relevance to the central government, as was the case with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, or else the issue should have particular resonance with central government priorities (the PDP's demand to open bus links between the two Kashmir's is a particularly good example).

Another interesting question is whether states that aren't numerically significant players in a coalition – or at least able to bring significant public support to the table – can play a substantial role in foreign policy initiatives. The answer to this is probably in the negative. The north-eastern states, which have hitherto failed to pressure the government over the opening up of borders with neighbouring countries like Burma, are a valid illustration of this state of affairs.

Although there has been a change in mindset as far as cross-border provinces are concerned, deep-seated concerns persist among certain political groups. Some are of the opinion that cross-border provincial interactions dilute the central government's authority over the border provinces. Others consider that opening borders recklessly is a threat to national security. However, they seem to refuse to accept the fact that cooperation among border regions can help, rather than harm, national interests. For example, in the case of the two Punjab's, it has been argued by many analysts that interactions in 2004-06 between politicians and common Punjabis not only helped in healing wounds between the provinces, but also in changing individual perceptions of the other country. While these state exchanges cannot override policies determined in the national capital, they can become an important component in assisting the process of policy formulation.

There is no doubt that the central government has to take the lead in foreign policy, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. Nonetheless, state governments sometimes have a bigger economic interest in pushing for closer links with neighbouring countries than the central government. Apart from that, they are bound by a common past and the logic of geography, and their role cannot be underestimated.

(Trividesh Maini is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

Courtesy: futuredirections.org

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.