Foreign Policy has become a complex art of compromises and consensus. The current global scenario with it’s rapidly evolving cultural, ethnic and political diversities demands it to be so. While the traditional and academic view holds that the domain of foreign policy belongs exclusively to the Centre, the political view strongly argues in favor of realism and advocates that internal differing views and sensitivities should be factored in to merge and evolve into an adaptive and accommodative national policy spectrum.
Through Article 246-A of the Constitution of India, the Central Government enjoys unequivocal and unhindered executive powers on all issues related to foreign policy. However, in countries like ours with tremendous diversity and of varying identities – devising foreign policy comes with its own share of internal complexities. This is further accentuated in a federal structure where coalition politics has now become the norm with State Governments often at conflict with each other on significant issues of bilateral relations, water-sharing agreements and border disputes.
An India that is pacing its way to a regional leadership role in the subcontinent and is deservingly aspiring for a larger role at international fora, an amicable and systematic method of factoring in these divergent views into general policies is a challenge. All except five Indian States have international land and maritime borders with our neighboring countries – with each of our States having remarkably different demographic, ethnic and political legacies and constituencies. A foreign policy direction that might be acceptable and favorable to one State might not be necessarily conducive for another. The philosophy of the ‘Idea of India’ – of a multi-ethnic, multi-linguist and multi-cultural union of identities – is an idea conscious of such divergence.
Despite the constitutional guarantees for federalism within our Constitution, Foreign Policy remains a prerogative and subject of the Central Government. While ideally the country’s interests are paramount – the interpretation of these very interests varies owing to different political sentiments and priorities. Differing political aspirations and sensitivities within the ambit of the Constitution and the State should be factored in while devising foreign policy decisions that impact different States in different measures and context. The external realities of the neighborhood that surrounds India are as complicated and as complex – mirrored in effect by our internal differences and sub-identities. A centralized policy core with systemic modes of consensus between the State and between the Centre and the States is the way forward.
In post-liberalization India and with the formation of coalition governments and emergence of new political forces, the Centre’s erstwhile policy domination in defining the economic course for the States was challenged and the States wrestled their share of say in defining their individual economic trajectories. States influencing foreign trade and investment policy started to become a norm. For instance, Gujarat and Maharashtra contribute a significant percentage towards India’s exports. Andhra Pradesh, under the leadership of Chandrababu Naidu in 2002 conducted State-level negotiations with the World Bank to provide a development loan package to the State. On the political front, one of the few instances where the State’s have been able to exercise power in foreign policy was when the Chief Minister of West Bengal stopped the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from signing the Teesta Water Agreement with Bangladesh. The State of Jammu and Kashmir, which is unfairly disadvantaged through the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan has been demanding renegotiation of the treaty through successive State Governments.
The BJP in its 2014 election manifesto promised a greater role for the States in devising foreign policy. Having been the Chief Minister of Gujarat for more than a decade, Prime Minister Modi understands the need to include State Governments decisions on the foreign policy front that impact States. Under his leadership a few mechanisms have been instituted like the formation of the State Division in the Ministry of External Affairs which provides guidance and helps States build bridges with countries they have special economic interests in. Even though the Central government is willing to consider a change in the status quo, the stringent and conservative foreign policy bureaucracy and India’s federal structure has strongly resisted the change.
The concept of ‘constituent diplomacy’coined by John Kincaid and followed by the US and China offers a possible model of emulation. The concept essentially involves constituent governments, local governments of federal countries as well as citizen organizations and non-governmental organizations in foreign policy decision making. Chinese provinces have their own foreign affairs officers and foreign trade and economic cooperation commissions to deal with foreign partners.
While New Delhi needs to reserve its exclusive say in matters of core national interest, it also perhaps needs to consider giving the State governments greater freedom to pursue cross-border economic partnership. The Central Government could also devise ways and means to take into account varying political realities across the States and how they could be factored into our foreign policy decisions. As far as “national interest” is concerned – the term has varying interpretations for varying governments and schools of thought. While it is true that a country’s national interests are supreme, the definition of ‘national interest’ will vary with time and across successive governments.