Federalisation Of Foreign Policy
The fact that during her latest visit to India, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent a considerable time in Kolkatta and with chief minister Mamata Banerjee , reportedly in an attempt to encourage better relations between New Delhi and Dhaka, has evoked mixed reactions as far as the diplomatic elites are concerned. One of my distinguished Professors at Jawaharlal Nehru University has written in a leading national daily that “unfortunately, we are now witnessing a new process where foreign policy-making is becoming subservient to short-sighted political interests of regional-state parties and leaders who are working contrary to the logic of our national foreign policy interests and objectives”. The Professor, who, incidentally, had taught me Indian foreign policy, did not approve of Mamata dictating terms to New Delhi with regard to sharing of Teesta river water with Bangladesh or for that matter Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa determining contours of India’s policy towards Sri Lanka. According to him, “India is gradually losing the larger picture if its role in global affairs is to be determined by regional-state parties. It is a dangerous trend in foreign policy because ‘local factors’ cannot be allowed to dictate strategic and defence policies for the whole country”.
Constitutionally speaking, foreign-policy is a subject that is the exclusive domain of the Central Government in our federal arrangement. It is the Central Government that can declare war; conducts relations with foreign nations and international organisations; appoints and receives diplomatic and consular officials; concludes, ratifies, and implements treaties; and acquires or cedes territory. Besides, it so happened that because of the complexities of the subject, only few individuals associated with the Central Government mostly dominated in interacting with the outside world. During the Nehru era, India’s foreign policy making process was entirely controlled by the Nehru’s charisma and personality, although at times, he was helped by the likes of KM Pannikar, KPS Menon (while dealing with the then Soviet Union and China), Girija Shankar Vajpayee and Krishna Menon (in matters pertaining to the United Kingdom and the United States). This trend of the Prime Minister and some of his or her trusted ministers and bureaucrats monopolising the making the foreign policy without any proper institutional frameworks was further legitimised by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Indira had said that public debates on foreign policy did not serve any useful purpose as it was a highly specialised subject.
More or less, the Vajpayee government carried on with this legacy. Although it established the so-called National Security Council and created a new post of national security adviser, there is hardly any evidence that it was working the way it was intended. In a way, under Vajpayee the foreign policy making base became narrower than what it was even during the Congress regimes. It was totally dominated by the then “National Security Advisor”, a former Foreign Service official, who also happened to be the principal secretary to the Prime Minister.
Simultaneously however, there have been trends, particularly since early 1990s, which have been resisting this over-centralisation of the foreign policy making. Initially, these were not given adequate attention, but now things are different. One cannot just ignore them. To begin with, many states wanted to have a say in the process, particularly when the economy opened up and the globalisation started impacting the daily lives of ordinary citizens. And in some cases, the Central Government did, grudgingly though, allow the individual states to deal directly with the foreign players. Two important developments resulted in this situation, which I would describe as “federalization of foreign policy”: the increasing regionalisation of Indian politics and economic liberalisation.
Through economic liberalisation, there is an environment in which states can play a key role in foreign economic policy, by seeking foreign direct investments and promoting foreign trade. No wonder why every chief minister now undertakes periodic trips abroad to seek investments in his or her state. He or she participates in negotiations with foreign investors directly. Likewise, some states have concluded agreements with foreign companies. For instance, in 1996, the then Maharashtra the government negotiated a power-purchase agreement with then existing Enron Corporation of the United States. Recently, Odisha government struck a deal with South Korean giant POSCO, which, if implemented, will be India’s largest ever foreign investment. That these examples in Maharashtra and Odisha have been controversial is a different matter; important here is to note that the central government did not block them; it rather facilitated.
Regionalisation of Indian politics has also contributed to the federalisation of the foreign policy. As both the national parties of the Congress and BJP are increasingly becoming weak, coalition governments at the Centre are going to be the norm for foreseeable future. And coalition governance gives regional parties the opportunity to influence the formulation of foreign policy, and to advance policies of specific interest to their states. That explains why DMK and AIADMK influence the policy towards Sri Lanka. That explains why Mamata Banerjee is the key towards improvement of ties with Bangladesh. That also is the reason why Nitish Kumar of Bihar will have a voice in matters pertaining to Nepal. And that accounts for the importance of Punjab’s Prakash Singh Badal in opening border with Pakistan for increasing trade. Many a time the voices of these regional chieftains have been beneficial to our the neighbouring countries (Amarinder Singh as Punjab’s chief minister had facilitated breakthroughs in transborder cooperation with Pakistan; Jyoti Basu and Buddhdev Bhattacharya of West Bengal and Tarun Gogoi of Assam were soft on Bangladesh with regard to illegal immigrants since they constituted important vote-banks) and many a time detrimental (Karunanidhi vis-a-vis Sri Lanka).
Thus, whether growing federalisation of foreign policy is good or not depends on many variables. But one thing is clear and that is the fact that the phenomenon has come to stay in this era of coalitions. This is not to suggest that the neither the central government nor the Ministry of External affairs is going to be irrelevant. The point is that as is happening in other parts of the world, our Foreign Office in the South Block can retain the driving seat in the country’s international behaviour by metamorphosing itself “from the role of the gate-keeper, to that of the coordinator”. In fact, some foreign offices have already evolved to the next stage, “the networked catalyst”. For instance, Germany has allowed its provinces to deal in many matters directly with European Union. Some border-provinces in China have been empowered to deal with the neighboring countries on some economic matters. So has been the case with many ASEAN and Latin American countries. In fact, Australia has gone to the extent of replacing its trade commissioners in its American consulates with US nationals under the belief that they would better sell the Australian products and interests—and thus save money!
Otherwise too, with increasing globalisation of the country’s economy, foreign policy matters are now affecting the day-to-day lives of the ordinary citizens and thus becoming electoral issues. As a result, Parliament, unlike in the past and like everywhere else, is witnessing more debates on foreign policy and its suggestions or inputs can no longer be ignored. And since Parliament is going to have more and more representations from the regional parties, it is but natural that they will be involved more actively in the pursuit of foreign policy interests, particularly those that concern their states or regions.
By Prakash Nanda