IPCS Discussion

Trends in Federalism and Foreign Policy: The Centre-State Debate

11 Apr, 2014    ·   4383

Prof Onkar Marwah
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS

Today, a number of states of India have become more powerful than they were fifty years ago. This has happened because either the central government has weakened or the states have become more powerful. For example, there is the case of West Bengal with regard to the Teesta river-sharing deal or Tamil Nadu with regard to Sri Lanka. The states have certain positions that they want to express, and the border states especially want a say in foreign policy.

Prof Christian Wagner
Head of Research, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
Germany is a federal republic, and German federalism has often been described as cooperative. There is a federal council which is a second chamber where both the centre and states can take part in the legislation. Moreover, the states have greater autonomy in Germany - every state has their own Constitution and their own symbol or flag. Since there is no position of a governor there is no control by the centre on the state institutional set-up.

In terms of monetary distribution, the richer states pay the poorer ones. There is a system of co-financing where the centre disburses funds for infrastructure projects, which is very similar to the Planning Commission of India. The states have also become more active in foreign policy which is the exclusive domain of the central government. In the German Constitution, only the centre is allowed to make international treaties. However, today, the states and the municipalities have initiated international activity to promote their business interests.

Since the early 1950s, there has been the Council of European Municipality to represent the interests of sub-units in the Europe Union (EU). This process was formalised by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 when the committee of regions was formed. There is some debate in Germany on how does central government can represent the interests of the states in the EU. The present situation is that the states have to be included in negotiation processes in the EU, and this is done by the Federal Council, the second chamber.

Prof PR Chari
Visiting Professor, IPCS
India is a ‘Union of States’ as said in the Constitution, pointing to its federal nature. Although federalism is not defined in the Constitution, the power between centre and states has been clearly demarcated. For example, the concurrent list allows the centre to overrule states in disputes regarding jurisdiction. The residuary legislative power is also with the centre. State governors can reserve bills for the consideration of the centre. Article 246 of the Indian Constitution delineates the legislative powers of the centre and state governments that are listed in the 7th schedule. The Union list reserves foreign policy for the central government.

Current centre-state tensions are reflected in three events: i) Manmohan’s Singh’s tame acquiescence to DMK pressure in November 2013 by not attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Instead, he visited Jaffna to strengthen India’s relations with the Tamil-dominated Northern Province. ii) New Delhi’s decision to enter an agreement with Bangladesh on sharing the Teesta river water was given up under pressure from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. iii) India concluded a Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh in 2011, which could not be finalised due to West Bengal’s opposition. All three events prejudiced India’s national interest. Additionally, opposition by states was clearly grounded in local politics. Foreign Policy is quite different. It cannot be ameliorated by greater decentralisation.

How can the foreign policy grievances of states be addressed in a way that ensures vital national interests? a) More consultations with the states. c) Establishment of institutions in states that can spread greater awareness of foreign policy issues. d) Deliberation on setting up of an institution like the Finance Commission to consider the foreign policy direction of India. 

Rapporteured by Madhavi Chakravarti, Research Intern, IPCS