IPCS Debate

Federalism and Foreign Policy: Regional Inputs in India's Neighbourhood Strategy

31 Jan, 2014    ·   4283

Prof V Suryanarayan recommends limited regional participation in the construction of India's foreign policy

The IPCS should be complemented for initiating a healthy debate on what role federal units should play in the making of India’s foreign policy. This essay is a perspective from Chennai.

India borders Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives. India’s relations with each neighbouring country will therefore have its immediate fallout on the contiguous Indian sates. India-Pakistan relations will have an effect on Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir; India-China relations will affect Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. India-Nepal relations will spill over to Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim and West Bengal; India-Bhutan relations will impinge upon West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam; India-Myanmar relations will have its fall out on Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram; India-Bangladesh relations will affect West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Assam; India-Sri Lanka relations are closely intertwined with the politics of Tamil Nadu and India-Maldives relations will have its impact on Minicoy Islands. Relations with Thailand and Indonesia have yet to take off in a big way and have thus not been mentioned.

During the era of one-party dominance, New Delhi pursued a foreign policy that it considered to be in India’s national interest. In that process, on several occasions, the interests and sensitivities of the contiguous Indian states were not taken into consideration. To illustrate, the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of October 1964, by which large sections of the people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) were given Indian citizenship was concluded without taking into considerations the wishes of the affected people. It was also opposed by important political sections in Tamil Nadu. Rajagopalachari, Kamaraj Nadar, Krishna Menon, Annadurai and Ramamurthy criticised the inhuman agreement as a betrayal of the Gandhi-Nehru legacy. Similarly the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary agreements of 1974 and 1976 which ceded the island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka and bartered away traditional fishing rights enjoyed by Indian fishermen in the Palk Bay region was opposed by the ruling party and the opposition in Tamil Nadu.

Even constructive suggestions made by the government of Tamil Nadu for improvement of bilateral relations were ignored by the Mandarins in outh Block. Chief Minister CN Annadurai was deeply concerned with the involuntary repatriation of Tamil labourers from Burma consequent to the nationalisation of retail trade and the related issue of non-payment of compensation due to them. After analysing the pros and cons of the issue, Annadurai wrote a letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suggesting that India should enter into a long-term trade agreement with Burma for import of rice, and compensation due to Burmese repatriates could be adjusted in the proposed deal. It may be recalled that in the mid-1960s, India was facing an acute shortage of food grain. It is unfortunate, but true, that this concrete proposal did not elicit any favourable response from New Delhi.

With the formation of coalition governments at the Centre and regional parties playing a national role, the situation has undergone a transformation. The regional parties began to make their inputs towards the making of foreign policy; what is more, the Central government succeeded in softening the chauvinist demands of their regional allies. To illustrate, the inclusion of the Sethusamudram project in the policies and programmes of the Manmohan Singh government was due to persistent efforts of the DMK. Similarly, the DMK government led by Karunanidhi went along with the Centre’s policy on Sri Lanka during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War. New Delhi understandably permitted Karunanidhi to indulge in political gimmicks to enable him to portray himself as the saviour of the Tamils.

What vitiates the atmosphere in Tamil Nadu is competitive one-upmanship between the two Dravidian leaders as to who is the true spokesman and saviour of Tamils. In this competitive game, rhetoric becomes more important than reality. The demand that Mahinda Rajapaksa should be tried by the International Court of Justice for war crimes; India should cut off diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka; opposition to training of Sri Lankan military personnel in defence establishments; attack on Sri Lankan pilgrims and delegates participating in international conferences – can be understood only if the competitive game is kept in mind. With impending parliamentary elections, the mad race between the two Dravidian parties is likely to intensify.

The running of foreign policy by federal units is not advocated, but they can and should make benign inputs into its making. Think-tanks specialising in foreign relations and Area Studies Departments in Universities can play a meaningful role in this direction.