Core, Periphery and Indian Foreign Policy: The growing divide between Delhi and sub-regions

25 Apr, 2013    ·   3895

D. Suba Chandran discusses the impact of these dynamics on the country's foreign policy decision-making mechanisms

During the recent months, the divide between New Delhi and Tamil Nadu was obvious over how both of them perceive the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. Not long ago, Mamata Banerjee played a spoil sport when the Indian Prime Minister visited Bangladesh, especially over the Teesta river. In J&K and in Sikkim, the local population have a different perception on cross-border relations and so has India’s Northeast regarding relations vis-a-vis Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Is Delhi, the Core in making foreign policy, losing its hold to the Periphery? Or, is the periphery asserting itself against the core, purely for domestic political reasons? Is the foreign policy of India, facing a danger of being a victim to internal differences between the Core and Periphery?

During the recent months, there has been a vilification of the Periphery, condemning the border States as acting against the interests of India’s foreign policy. Undoubtedly, there is an element of truth in this. However, this is also because of the inability of the Core to understand what its Periphery wants, and more importantly, the abject ignorance of Periphery’s interests by the Core, in terms of cross-border expectations.

For a very long time, both the Prime Minister Office and the South Block did not give any attention or space to the States, especially the border ones, in deciding India’s foreign policy. The issues were debated in New Delhi, conclusions made and policies imposed. Both the PMO and the South Block failed to understand, or perhaps deliberately ignored the regional aspirations vis-a-vis cross border linkages. Or, perhaps, there was an inbuilt arrogance, that the Core knows all about the foreign policy, and the Periphery does not look into the “larger picture”. Introduction of this highly convoluted idea of a “larger picture” in the foreign policy decision making, made the PMO and South Block ignore, and at times even undermine the regional aspirations.

Consider the case of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. For long, the Tamils in India have been passionate in their support to the Sri Lankan Tamils. It is unfortunate, that the rest of India never understood the different between supporting the Sri Lankan Tamil cause against supporting the LTTE; both were seen as synonymous. While Tamil Nadu wanted to take decisive action against the Sri Lankan state in stopping the genocide and provide devolution for the Tamils there, New Delhi had a “larger picture” to take into account. In this case, New Delhi was afraid and apprehensive of Sri Lanka’s relationship with China and Pakistan.

The Sri Lankan government, especially under Rajapakse, pursued a smarter strategy vis-a-vis China and Pakistan. It clearly hinted New Delhi that if India does not provide adequate support, it will lean towards Beijing and Islamabad. Balancing the interests and influences of China and Pakistan in Sri Lanka became the “larger picture” for New Delhi, at the cost of interests of Tamil Nadu.

Similar is the case in J&K and Sikkim, in terms of building strong cross-border relations vis-a-vis the other part of Kashmir and Tibet respectively. Multiple institutions within J&K – from the business community to divided families would prefer to go faster and expand immensely the present level of cross-LoC interactions. The business community in Sikkim have been pressurising their State government and New Delhi in making the interactions across the Nathu La and the border trade more meaningful and substantial.

In both the above cases, for the PMO and the South Block, there is a “larger picture” of India-Pakistan and India-China relations, which needs to be kept in mind. If the larger picture demands, then the interests of border states can be ignored, or at times, even sacrificed.

The above discussion by no means signifies that the problem is only with the Core. The Periphery is not all that naive and innocent in asserting itself. As has been the case in the recent problem – both in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, internal domestic politics within the State and the relationship with the ruling party at the federal level, in this specific case with the Congress, play a substantial role in upping the ante. In Tamil Nadu’s case, the Dravidian political parties, especially the DMK and MDMK have never been constant in their demands.

As long as the DMK was a part of the coalition, it kept quiet on the Sri Lankan Tamil crisis; the Sri Lankan Tamil issue was carpeted when they were in power, for there is no need to talk about the issue, for the simple reason they are a part of the coalition at the Core and running the Periphery. Once out of power both at the Core and Periphery, knowing the value of whipping up the Tamil sentiments, the DMK has taken this issue to settle scores with the Congress. This also gives the DMK and MDMK to revive their political relevance, else, there is no issue that they could use to exploit the sentiments of the people in Tamil Nadu. The ruling ADMK has no other option other than to beat the DMK rhetoric. Hence the ADMK has to be seen as “doing something” and protecting the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils and addressing the concerns of Tamils in general.

West Bengal’s case in spoiling the PM’s visit to Bangladesh is not based on any principled position, but purely on the Chief Minister’s ego. With a highly inflated ego and self perception, more than any substance, Mamta Banerjee used the Teesta river to prove a point to the Congress – that how important she is. Or, what a spoiler she could be.

Now the bigger questions - is this divide between the Core and Periphery, essentially a bad development? Is the Periphery fixing the Core, forcing the latter to whither the foreign policy of India? Statements appeared in the electronic and print media especially in New Delhi highlights an exaggerated approach.

Perhaps, this divide is a good development and is much needed for it provides an opportunity for the Core to understand the need for taking into account the interests and aspirations of the Periphery in deciding the foreign policy.

In this context, it is useful to refer to how a State like China, though not fully democratic, but surprisingly allow its periphery in taking a lead in terms of interaction with the neighbouring countries. A case in point is how Beijing uses Sichuan and Yunnan in allowing these provinces to conduct almost an independent policy vis-a-vis Southeast Asia, especially relating to economic issues. Today, China’s substantial relation with Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand is pursued by Sichuan and Yunnan, and not by Beijing.

For a large federation like India, it may be a good model to pursue and provide a substantial role to its Periphery in linking up with the neighbouring countries. For example Punjab, J&K, Sikkim, Northeast, West Bengal and South India could play a crucial role in taking forward the external relations, especially the economic ones and make India’s interactions with the neighbouring countries much more positive. What New Delhi has to see is the “larger picture” in terms of what is happening in its border states and the neighbouring countries, and allow the border states to become a bridge for India.

Perhaps, it is time, that the Periphery of India becomes the core of India’s foreign policy towards the neighbouring countries. This would address the basic issue and bring the border states into the mainstream foreign policy. Periphery has the potential to become a great asset for the Core, provided New Delhi sees the larger picture.

By arrangement with 
Rising Kashmir