IPCS Debate

Federalism and Foreign Policy: Do National Political Parties have ‘Regional Outlooks’?

24 Jan, 2014    ·   4272

Wasbir Hussain advices against a drastic alteration of the powers of the central and state governments in India

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow

Mr PR Chari appears to be happy with the ‘federalisation of India’s polity,’ which, he says, has ‘enabled its conversion into a true democracy’. One can understand his point of view given that federalisation has rendered the states more assertive; the medium through which this aggression has been demonstrated to the Centre has been through the regional political parties – who have managed to capture the imagination of the electorate through local issues. Mr Chari is right in stating that regional parties would increasingly be able to decide who would come to govern in New Delhi. However, one senses a fear in his mind when he says, “a hodgepodge of regional parties seems likely, therefore, to shape the structure of the new Government in New Delhi and guide its security beliefs, with distressing implications for peace and conflict in South Asia.”
However, the emerging trend in the game of vote-catching that is being played rather efficiently by politicians and political parties in India must not be overlooked. In regions such as the Northeast, it has been seen that national parties frame their politics a certain way - the Congress calls itself a ‘national party with a regional outlook’. In fact, this particular slogan of the Congress party has paid rich dividends in Northeast India for years. It is certainly not a simple debate, but simply speaking, a mainstream national party like the Congress is in power now in five of the eight Northeastern states, including Assam and Manipur, that are severely hit by insurgency. This is despite the insurgent groups standing their ground to fight the Indian State to achieve ‘self determination’ for the people or ethnicities they seek to represent. This means that despite forces of separatism constantly at play, integrationist political forces like the Congress and others have managed comfortable electoral victories.

The re-focusing that the national parties have done vis-à-vis their policies or approach towards large regions such as the Northeast has yielded good results for them. In Assam, for instance, the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) emerged on the political scene in 1985 with the sole promise of ridding the state of illegal foreign migrants and building what it called a ‘golden Assam’. It swept the State Assembly polls in 1985, lost in 1991, returned to power in 1996, and has lost almost every form of election in the state since then. The AGP’s prime demand in its heyday had been a federal restructuring of Assam with the Centre retaining responsibilities only of defence, foreign affairs, currency and communication, and the state, the rest. However, with political parties like the Congress refusing to employ rhetoric and instead bombarding states with flagship programmes aimed at generating employment, providing free healthcare and food, the federalism card of the regional parties, including that of the AGP in Assam, has lost its sting.

On his part, Dr D Suba Chandran, in his commentary, ‘Expanse of Federalism: South Asia Sui Generis?’, seems to support the idea of the Centre taking regions or states into confidence on matters of foreign policy, at least while formulating policies towards nations neighbouring such states.

That should perhaps be the case, but the grave differences in the points of view between regional parties that may be ruling a state and the party in power at the Centre regarding critical issues make it difficult for the government in New Delhi to co-opt the states during foreign policy formulations. For example, the Chief Minister of West Bengal and Trinamool supremo, Mamata Banerjee, blocked the Teesta water-sharing agreement between India and Bangladesh, leaving New Delhi in the lurch. Similarly, there was uproar by the regional parties in Assam over the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement that envisages the exchange of 161 enclaves adversely held by India and Bangladesh in each other's territories, and the alterations of boundaries between the two countries in certain places.
A classic case of New Delhi not really including the views of states or regions in foreign policy-making is over the execution of the much-touted Look East Policy being pursued since the early 1990s. In fact, all the big talk about integrating India’s Northeast with the emerging Southeast Asian ‘tiger economies’ is sought to be done by New Delhi without much policy consultation with the Chief Ministers or the political class of the region. This approach has thus resulted in little or no enthusiasm among the key stakeholders – the people of the region – over the policy that is suspected to serve as a bridge between West Bengal and Southeast Asia, with the Northeast Indian states remaining, as earlier, the underbelly.
The federalisation of the polity in India has both positives and negatives, and even dangers. Any attempt at drastically altering the powers of the Centre and the state is certainly fraught with danger. Caution alone can keep the nation integrated.