Indian foreign policy: the increasing role of regional satraps

Author: Tridivesh Singh Maini, New Delhi

Two news stories over the last two weeks have reiterated the changing nature of India’s engagement with the outside world, which is no longer spearheaded by New Delhi.

First, the UK’s Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire revealed on 11 October that the British government, in a major policy shift last week, has decided to review its decade-long policy with the state of Gujarat and its Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. Swire said that the UK would like to recommence active engagement with Gujarat. The UK High Commissioner James Bevan subsequently met with Modi on 22 October at Gandhinagar. They discussed economic opportunities in the state and other issues such as climate change. But the High Commissioner was quick to state that his meeting with Modi did not mean that the UK endorsed Modi; it was only re-engaging with him. In 2002 during Modi’s chief ministership the state was witness to ghastly riots, and Modi was accused of inaction. Many western governments, including the UK, consequently kept him at arms length.

The second is that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will be visiting Pakistan in the second week of November. He has been invited by the Punjab government (Pakistan) headed by Shahbaz Sharif. Interestingly, Kumar is not part of the ruling UPA-led coalition but belongs to the Janata Dal (United), which is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. However, he has received support from the central government for his visit to Pakistan.

Many believe that both decisions have political overtones. The British government’s olive branch to Modi is seen as a way of restoring diplomatic relations with a man who could become prime minister. Kumar’s decision to visit Pakistan also suggests that the Bihar chief minister, who many see as a contender for the prime ministership, wants to make his presence felt on the national stage.

The fact is, participation of regional governments in foreign policy is a global phenomenon and has been defined as ‘constituent diplomacy’ by American scholar John Kincaid. He attributes this phenomenon to a cocktail of factors driven by globalisation, such as economic liberalisation, diffusion of technology and the decentralisation of political power.

India, too, is witnessing this change. Since the 1990s in the immediate aftermath of economic liberalisation, Indian states have been doggedly pursuing economic diplomacy with both the US and other countries. In recent years, states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Bihar have been pro-active in their engagement with foreign governments. State governments such as Gujarat and Bihar have started global summits, which host potential investors from around the world.

Regional parties in India have an important role to play in an increasingly coalition-led central government. These regional parties are exercising a considerable influence over foreign policy, especially with regard to India’s neighbouring countries. In certain cases, they have even intervened on issues that previously would be considered the exclusive domain of the central government.

Foreign governments also realise the increasingly important role state governments play, and are beginning to actively engage with state governments. In May 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited West Bengal before visiting New Delhi and met up with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to discuss the possibility of US investment in West Bengal. And last year, Clinton visited Tamil Nadu and met up with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Selvi J. Jayalalithaa.

Up until now, more attention has been given to states such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which have acted as impediments to New Delhi’s gestures toward Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But many other states such as Punjab, Tripura and Bihar have been willing to support New Delhi’s gestures toward India’s neighbours. Punjab is keen to improve ties with Pakistan, Tripura with Bangladesh and Bihar with Nepal and possibly Pakistan in the future — if the Bihar chief minister’s visit is successful.

The increasingly important role of states in foreign policy raises some interesting points.

First, state intervention in foreign policy is not always a bad thing; examples of Tripura, Bihar and Punjab clearly reiterate this point.

Second, in the context of foreign policy issues, political parties that are not part of the central alliance, such as Bihar and Punjab, are usually more supportive of central government initiatives.

Third, some leaders are very aggressive when it comes to engaging countries outside India’s immediate neighbourhood, but fail to do so within it. For example, while Narendra Modi has visited countries such as Japan and China to attract foreign investment to Gujarat, he is not as aggressive in pushing for economic linkages with neighbouring Sind (Pakistan), one of Gujarat’s biggest trade benefactors. While Modi has spoken about cooperation with Sind in the energy sector, apart from encouraging investment from across the border in his state. But this has been downplayed by Modi himself and the Indian media. Trade delegations from Pakistan have also been visiting Gujarat — the Karachi Chamber of Commerce has invited Modi to visit Pakistan but so far he has been non-committal.

With the 2014 election results likely to be fragmented, and certain Indian states committed to increasing economic diplomacy, both New Delhi and the outside world would do well to realise that the regional influence on India’s foreign policy is not just a temporary phenomenon, but a long-term dynamic.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist and independent foreign policy analyst.