Originally Published 2012-06-02 00:00:00 Published on Jun 02, 2012
The ever increasing importance of States in foreign policy - which is traditionally a preserve of the Centre - is not restricted to India, but in fact has become an important matter of debate in international relations.
Regional leaders and foreign policy
The increasing relevance of States in India’s foreign and economic policy was once again reiterated by the fact that a meeting with West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee was part of visiting US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s itinerary. While there is no clarity as to whether the two discussed the issue of FDI and the role of West Bengal in Indo-Bangladesh ties, greater economic engagement between West Bengal and the United States was something both sides agreed on. Last year, during the course of her India sojourn, Clinton had visited Chennai and had a meeting with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa.

This ever increasing importance of States in foreign policy - which is traditionally a preserve of the Centre - is not restricted to India, but in fact has become an important matter of debate in international relations. The concept of ’constituent diplomacy’ propounded by Robert Kincaid, deals with the phenomenon of ’international activities of a foreign-policy character undertaken by the constituent governments (e.g., States, provinces, cantons, and Länder) and local governments (mostly municipalities) of federal countries and decentralized unitary states, as well as by citizen organizations and non-governmental organizations.’ Constituent diplomacy cannot be attributed to any one specific factor, but a combination of many. The ever increasing role of States in India’s foreign policy - especially neighbourhood policy - is also a consequence of multiple factors.

The primary reason is the increasing clout of regional parties and regional satraps in coalition governments, a consequence of their ever increasing numbers. It is for this reason that regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), DMK and National Conference (NC) have asserted themselves on foreign policy issues such as the Teesta River Water Treaty, relations with Sri Lanka and the relationship with Pakistan.

States have also become important in the context of neighbourhood policy due to the current UPA regime’s concerted efforts on improving relations with its neighbours through increased bilateralism. Serious overtures have been made towards neighbours within the SAARC such as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan and others such as Myanmar - which is outside the SAARC framework. Connectivity with many of these countries through rail and road has naturally increased their relevance.

This focus on bilateralism is a consequence of two realities. First, the South Asian Regional Forum for Cooperation (SAARC) has long been held hostage to bilateral disputes, principally between India and Pakistan. As a consequence, it has not been able to facilitate cooperation between its member states. Apart from this, the organization has been extremely bureaucratic and not really facilitated progress.

Second, for giving shape to its Look East Policy and developing closer ties with Myanmar, bilateralism was imperative. As a consequence of this bilateralism, border provinces have become crucial. While some such as Kashmir and Punjab in the West and Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh Mizoram and Nagaland in the East, which share land borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar respectively, have been pitching for closer ties for economic benefits, others such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have been more belligerent and rather than pitching for a better relationship, have got bogged down by local political constraints.

The other important reason for States becoming crucial players in foreign policy is that members of the strategic community and even those in government have begun to realise the importance of these border provinces for greater connectivity within the neighbourhood. This feeling within sections of the government and outside has also increased because of comparisons with China. While in India the borders have been thought of as mere frontiers or outposts rather than bridges or gateways, in China border provinces have been utilized as connectors with neighbours in both East and West.

While there is a definite consensus over the fact that states are beginning to play an important role in India’s neighbourhood policy, chief ministers have not followed any one specific path - some are helping Delhi in reducing tensions with neighbouring countries, while others are not. The role being played by some of the chief ministers and regional satraps, in this process, contradicts conventional wisdom. An in-depth analysis of their role would reveal more than one irony.

First, certain chief ministers who have left no stone unturned in selling the fact that they are pro-business have refrained from making any substantial overtures towards neighbouring countries - even in the economic sphere. One example which clearly stands out is Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, who has been making desperate efforts to improve his anti-Muslim and anti-minority image - without much success - and to become more acceptable, has not made any attempt to come at the forefront of the Indo-Pak relationship. This despite his state sharing a long border with Pakistan and in spite of great potential for businessmen from his state carrying out a significant amount of business with Pakistan through the state’s ports. In fact - at least in the short run - the biggest beneficiary of trade with Pakistan is likely to be Gujarat. Note that the number of commodities being presently traded between Gujarat and Karachi - 5000 - is much more than those traded through the land routes between the Punjab’s, which is 137.

Interestingly, while the US continues to deny Modi a visa, businessmen from Karachi have invited him but not received any response! Significantly, Modi even went with a delegation to China to sell the Gujarat story. Thus, in spite of his political compulsions, it is strange that he does not see any sense in reaching out to Pakistan at all.

His behaviour also challenges the argument that economics is the single-most important consideration for politicians from the right of centre. On the contrary, a Left government in the North East have been doggedly pushing for greater interaction between their respective states and neighbouring Bangladesh. One good example of this is the role being played by Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar in pushing for closer Tripura-Bangladesh ties. Sarkar invited the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina to his state in January. The latter was conferred with an honorary degree. In fact, so keen is Sarkar for a better relationship that he even urged Hasina to speak to Mamata Banerjee about the Teesta River water issue so that an amicable solution could be found to the current impasse.

The second interesting aspect is that many allies of the UPA government have taken a contradictory stance, the prominent examples being the TMC in West Bengal and DMK in Tamil Nadu, which compelled the government to vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations. The contrary stand taken by allies of the UPA has clearly shown that one of Rafiq Dossani’s arguments, which up until now was a commonly held assumption, in Indian Federalism and the Conduct of Foreign Policy in Border States: State Participation and Central Accommodation Since 1990, was a bit premature. In his study, Dossani stated that, ’... the passive role of the ruling state parties in Tamil Nadu and Kashmir in Sri Lanka’s and Pakistan’s affairs, respectively, at a time when these parties belonged to the national ruling coalition (1998-2004). Further, during the tenure of the subsequent national government (the Congress-led UPA), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu since 2006, the DMK, has been passive on co-ethnic foreign policy issues. So has the ruling PDP coalition in Kashmir.’

Interestingly, certain governments which are not part of the UPA alliance have supported the government’s overtures toward neighbours - they include the North Eastern chief ministers and Punjab Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, who is a member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). At the inauguration of the integrated checkpost at Attari, for example, Badal urged India’s home minister to ease the visa regime for citizens of both countries in general and the two Punjabs in particular. He also spoke about the need for opening up more trade routes with Pakistan through his state. More recently, his son and Deputy Chief Minister of the state, Sukhbir Singh Badal, urged the central government to allow sale of surplus wheat produce to Pakistan. Of late, even the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) is part of the NDA, has been making serious overtures towards Nepal, as was evident from the recently held global Bihar summit in February.

While there can be no single explanation for the above point, it is perhaps political constraints - arising out of public opinion - and the logic of geography along with economic incentives which propel some regional leaders to think beyond their narrow political considerations.

It might be mentioned that in the previous NDA government, the PDP, which was an ally of the Congress, also received support for all its initiatives vis-a-vis Pakistan. The Srinagar-Muzzafarabad bus service was conceived by the PDP and received the support of the NDA government. It was inaugurated during the UPA regime though.

Third, one would imagine that regions such as Punjab - which have been witness to a traumatic partition and wars with Pakistan - would be more jingoistic and averse to ameliorating relations with India’s neighbours. On the contrary, Punjab is willing to take a lead role in acting as a bridge with Pakistan. In fact, today if there is anything over which the mainstream parties of Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress, are on the same page, it is closer economic ties with Pakistan. Both sides have been pitching for easing visa restrictions and increasing the number of land routes for trade. In this context, the old argument of the pre-1947 generation playing spoilsport in the bilateral relationship is also beginning to lose relevance, as the current Chief Minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, is part of that generation, and was in fact the last Indian to graduate from Lahore in 1947.

In conclusion, one can safely assume that while the role of regional satraps in India’s neighbourhood ties is bound to increase, the actual trajectory is extremely unpredictable - like Indian politics - since they traverse divergent tracks.

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

Courtesy: Seminar, June 2012

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