Friday, October 11, 2013

Federalism and Foreign Policy

(Remarks at ICWA-JNU Conference)

Oct 9, 2013

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Some years ago, I worked with a Foreign Secretary, who believed that no Punjabi should deal with Pakistan and no Tamil should deal with Sri Lanka. In fact, when I offered to be posted to Sri Lanka, he told me that I should not go there because of my Tamil sounding name. I pleaded that the name was not uncommon in Kerala, but he said that it was not possible to convince every Tamil Tiger and Sinhala extremist that I was not a Tamil. Today, he might say that no Bangali should deal with Bangladesh, no Bihari should deal with Nepal or Mauritius, nobody from the North-East should deal with China and no Malayalee should deal with the Gulf. Such are the interlinkages that have developed between our border states and our neighbours. Their concerns about our relations with these countries are so real that foreign policy can no longer be framed or practiced without taking into account their interests.

The constitutional position on foreign policy is crystal clear. It is within the jurisdiction of the Centre and there is no mechanism to consult the states. Some people believe that the Indian state is only quasi-federal because of the lack of autonomy given to the states in certain vital matters.

In his letters to the Chief Ministers, Pandit Nehru often took the regional leaders into confidence on some aspects of foreign policy, more to educate them than to consult them. Foreign policy advocacy by certain states was not uncommon even then. But with the advent of coalitions, in which the regional parties had the power to make and unmake governments, state leaders began to play a decisive role in foreign policy. With globalization and economic reforms, ethnic, immigration and economic issues and even simple prejudices of regional leaders began to play a role. The most recent dramatic instances were of Mamta Banerjee holding up the Teesta water sharing agreement with Bangladesh and Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi pushing India to vote in favour of a US sponsored human rights resolution on Sri Lanka. Less dramatically, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu slowed down the Jaitapur and Kudankulam nuclear projects, Odisha forced a revision of a South Korean project and Kerala made it hard for the Centre to deal with the Italian marines, who killed two fishermen off the cost of the state.
The only way to deal with the situation is for the Centre to subsume the interests of the states. But coalition politics cannot be permitted to sway foreign policy beyond a point. Trade agreements are particularly important, when products, which are special to different states are covered in such agreements. The virtual veto given to the states on the issue of FDI in retail is a case in point.

Kashmir is, of course, a special case when it comes to foreign policy. The state leaders have always been consulted on our policy towards Pakistan. Moreover, the state has used our differences with Pakistan to push for its own autonomy in various ways. The special privileges that Kashmir enjoys are a consequence of our foreign policy preoccupations. The role that Hurriet plays in relations with Pakistan is significant. The Hurriet leaders meeting Pakistani leaders in India has almost become routine. In the name of Pakistani sensitivities, the state adopts positions, which the other states will not be permitted to do.

Of late, Chief Ministers and others have begun to visit foreign countries to canvass investments, to seek changes in immigration policies and to smoothen trade regulations. Increasingly, foreign dignitaries too have begun to visit the states to win potentially powerful regional leaders. Hillary Clinton chose to visit Mamta Banerji and Chennai to meet Jayalalthaa. She made a policy statement on the US rebalancing in the Pacific not from Delhi, but from Chennai. The Consulates have stepped up their activities in several states. Requests for appointment of Honorary Consuls have multiplied. The states have also begun to push for internationalization of education to gain benefits abroad.

Turning to Kerala, where I have lived for nearly ten years after leaving the Foreign Service, there has been sustained interest in foreign affairs, but it was confined to sending some Menons, Nairs and Panikkars to the South Block and trusting them to take care of Kerala’s interests. Even today, Kerala pressurizes the Centre to send Malayalee envoys to the Gulf, in the expectation that they would look after the Kerala labour in those countries better. The possibility of the forced return of Kerala workers from the Gulf creates tremors and Kerala Ministers rush to the Gulf even when the issues are dealt with by two Central Ministers from Kerala. At the time of the nuclear deal, the leftist Government in Kerala campaigned strongly against the deal and even adopted a resolution in the legislature against it. The same Government raised alarm when a trade agreement between India and ASEAN came up. It agitated that the loss of revenue to the state should be avoided even if there were more than corresponding benefits for the Centre. Kerala insisted that the bilateral relations between India and Italy should not be dragged into the legal case against the Italian marines. Even the United Front Government, dominated by the Congress Party, felt deceived when its jurisdiction in the case was questioned. Kerala was confident that a settlement could be reached with the Italians with the help of the church, if the Centre had not intervened.
Intensive and continuous interaction between the Centre and the states is important to allay the fears of the states regarding foreign policy being made in Delhi. The Centre should be more sensitive to the needs and concerns of the states. Serving officers of the Ministry of External should brief think tanks and other groups, who are interested in foreign policy through outreach programmes and provision of support to them for sustaining themselves. More courses should be started in international relations in the Universities to enthuse youngsters. State media take interest in foreign affairs only when something of their immediate interest happens and they tend to be nagaive about them. The successes in foreign policy elsewhere go unnoticed in the process.
Foreign policy making cannot be shifted out of Delhi and the regional satraps should not be allowed to dominate foreign policy without the national perspective. But regional inputs should be integral to foreign policy making at every step of the way.

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