IPCS Debate

Federalism and Foreign Policy: Limits of the Political-Institutional Framework in India

01 Feb, 2014    ·   4284

Zaad Mahmood underlines the need to make institutional adjustments to address the changed context

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies has initiated a timely academic discussion on the dynamics of foreign policy in response to evolving federalism in India. The first instalment in this exercise is PR Chari’s Limits of Federalism which makes important assertions regarding the disproportionate dominance of regional interests over national interests in the formulation of foreign policy. Chari attributes such a development to the regionalisation of politics and increasing currency of coalition government at the centre. He cites example such as India not joining the CHOGM summit in Colombo and non-ratification of the Indo-Bangladesh water-sharing agreement to reinforce his argument of regional parochial interests impeding broader national interests. 

Such an assertion however is limited by its understanding of the evolving relationship between federalism and foreign policy. D Suba Chandran in his Expanse of Federalism highlights some of the weaknesses in Chari’s argument and I seek to develop the leitmotif further. 

Firstly, the claims of distressing implications of federalisation on foreign policy choice are farfetched and reflect a superficial evaluation of contemporary developments. Although Chari is correct in highlighting increasing assertion of regional parties, he fails to recognise that the relation is not automatic or unilinear. There are situations when contrary to the claims of Chari regionalisation has in fact provided leeway for foreign policy shifts by the centre. Most of the regional parties have specific local and political constituency and their policy orientations are geared towards such support base with little or none international focus.

The foreign policy outlooks of regional parties are largely contingent upon negotiation and trade-off with the central government and nature of political contestation in the sub-national states. It would be instructive to recall that the most prominent shift in Indian foreign policy in recent memory - the Indo-US nuclear deal - could be ratified in the face of opposition from the two largest opposition parties in Parliament (BJP and Left) only due to support from regional parties like DMK, RJD and most famously, the SP. Regional parties reflect clear provincial aspirations and the assertion that coalition government with regional players will necessarily have serious implications for India’s internal and external security is untenable. 

The recent centre-region conflicts over foreign policy (over Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) are not due to party system fragmentation but rather an outcome of institutional and political inertia in an altered architecture. The constitutional division of powers and responsibility was structured in a particular time and context. Unlike the constitutional devolution of power, the operation of federalism in India has undergone significant transformations over the last six decades, especially since economic liberalisation in the 1990s. 

Scholars like Lawrence Saez (Federalism Without a Centre) and Rob Jenkins (Democratic Politics and Economic Reform in India) have pointed out that economic reform has coincided with increasing decentralisation where regional states have emerged as crucial actors in negotiating with global economy. Such a development along with incidence of coalition governments has provided regional governments not only greater leverage but also greater responsibilities. However the constitutional scheme of devolution of power as well as mind-set in the core continues to perceive foreign policy as its exclusive domain. This gap between altered reality and traditional institutional-political framework is the principle cause behind some of the foreign policy contradictions. 

The fiasco over the Teesta water-sharing agreement is a typical example of the altered political-economy reality. Teesta is a crucial river for the state of West Bengal and the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee opposed any water-sharing treaty that would adversely affect her support base. She has claimed that her government had not been adequately consulted during the Teesta agreement and as such she was not bound to endorse the water-sharing proposal. Similarly in the context of India’s role in Sri Lanka (involvement) the state of Tamil Nadu which shares deep rooted ties with Sri Lankan Tamils was hardly consulted. Both these cases suggest that regional governments or parties are largely interested with their immediate concerns and neighbourhood and not foreign policy per se. 

Just as there have been instances of divergence in the interests of the region and the centre, instances such as Tripura Governments willingness to increase trade with Bangladesh or Bihar government’s interest to improve trade relation with Nepal suggest convergence. 

In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic democracy like India, regionalisation of politics and conflicts between centre and states are inevitable. D Suba Chandran correctly argues that this regional assertion is not something unexpected but a logical extension of federal principles. However the constitution and political conventions provide for mechanisms to resolve disputes like National Development Council, Finance Commission etc. 

In the altered context of a decentralised and globalised world, the states have emerged (often goaded by the central government) as key actors in economic and developmental fields. Naturally regional governments have increased stake in, especially in their neighbouring countries. As such there is a necessity for institutional innovation especially in dealing with neighbourhood policy of India where regional actors and central states can discuss and negotiate policies.
This is essential because in the constitutional scheme foreign policy remains exclusive domain of central government but the success of many policies depend on cooperation from regions. Political fragmentation and regionalisation have endowed regional interests with greater political leverage than ever before and conceptions of national interests of India must include the aspirations of these regions.