Regional Satraps and the Battle for India Foreign Policy

Regional Satraps and the Battle for India Foreign Policy

by Kalyani Shankar


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Regional Satraps and the Battle for India Foreign Policy by Kalyani Shankar

This book is a pioneering work about the growing domestic influences on India’s foreign policy with the increasing number of powerful chief ministers asserting at the state level. It investigates how and why in a coalition era with a globally integrated Indian economy, managing a parliamentary coalition and also working with Chief Ministers from the opposition-ruled States is increasingly becoming difficult and a challenge to Prime Ministers.

The study explores particularly the concerns of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Northeastern states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other border states and the issues pertaining to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. Most of the disputes with the neighbouring countries have been on water sharing, land and security, which impinge on the state.

The study shows that there is a case for institutionalising the process of consultation and involvement of these States in foreign or security policy, trade and investment and people to people contact in the changing scenario.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789386457332
Publisher: Vij Books India
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Pages: 345
Product dimensions: 5.79(w) x 8.76(h) x 1.03(d)

About the Author

Ms. Kalyani Shankar is a Delhi based political commentator and columnist. She was the Political Editor of Hindustan Times and also its Washington correspondent. She is a multi-media personality with experience in broadcast and television journalism.
Shankar was a Nuffield Press Fellow at Cambridge University, a Public Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington D.C., and a scholar at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. She has authored four books including Gods of Power: Personality Cult and Indian Democracy, India and the United States: Politics of the Sixties, Nixon, Indira and India: Politics and Beyond and Pandora’s Daughters

Read an Excerpt



Independent India is a unique State where religious, ethnic and cultural entities are clubbed together by an overarching nationalism and growing economic networks. The glue is indeed the Union Government. Virtually right from the beginning some hostile forces and rival external powers have tried to unglue India by attacking and weakening the Union Government. This was attempted in various ways – by conflict, by diplomacy, by clandestine and other means.

The Central Government has been able to resist all these and defend the States to keep the Union going largely because it had full control and the wherewithal of how to respond to the external challenges. Its grip on the foreign policy was total. The three provisions of the Indian Constitution give the Union Government full powers to conduct foreign affairs. The first is that the Parliament has power to make any law for the whole or any part of the territory of India, for implementing any Treaty, agreement or convention with any country (Art 253). The second is that the Union Government has full executive powers for the implementation of its laws, treaties and agreements (Art 73). The third is to prevent the States from obstructing the administration of laws by the Union Government, the executive powers of the States are to be so exercised as not to impede or prejudice the exercise of the executive power of the Union (Article 257).

The Context

It is time to look back and assess whether there was a national consensus on the government's foreign policy making and also itsevolution. Was any attempt made to involve all stake-holders on foreign policy issues? Are the States right in asserting for a bigger role in the making of foreign policy, particularly the Border States with the neighbouring countries in the changing scenario? Has the Centre taken note of the gradual and growing linkage between foreign policy and domestic policy as both impinge on each other? It is indeed a two-way channel, where domestic policies get reflected into foreign policy and in the reverse foreign policy agenda is also used to bolster up domestic policy.

There is no doubt that the State satraps are insisting on a bigger say. Why has it happened? How seriously is it affecting the making of India's foreign policy and constricting freedom of the Union Government? Is it a temporary phenomenon or will it continue in the future? Will the Centre have to continuously negotiate its policy with these States and will the latter have a veto of sorts on Centre's foreign policy? These are the questions that need to be probed.

The Hypothesis

1. The Centre is likely to take unilateral foreign policy decisions even though at times it affected the States in a negative way when it is strong. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was able to steer his foreign policy the way he wanted, just informing the State chieftains after the decisions were taken.

2. When the interests of the regional satraps and the Centre converge, they are likely to be on the same page.

This applies to Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the North East as well as Bordering States of Nepal. Of course there are variations depending upon the issues and the context. Sometimes the regional satrap supports the Centre and at other times the same leaders oppose it. This was what happened in the case of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee who supported the Land Boundary Agreement after being persuaded by the Centre but opposes the Teesta treaty till today.

3. The States are likely to get their way when the Centre is weak. This has been proved in the past three and more decades, inthe coalition era. This was more so in the last decade when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to bow to the wishes of the Dravidian parties on the Sri Lanka policy and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on the Teesta treaty.

The study will also go into when the regional satraps are powerful enough to influence the national foreign policy and when they are not. It is clear that there are at least three areas of concern for the State Chieftains. Most of the disputes with the neighbouring countries have been on water sharing, land and security, which impinge on the States. Water sharing is a dispute with almost all the neighbours. Security on the border also more or less concerns all Border States and so is land. Immigration from the neighbouring countries also causes problems. The point to note is that while the States may not have direct control over India's foreign policy, three important subjects – water, land and law and order fall under the purview of the States.

I would like to study under what conditions these regional satraps play their role in supporting or opposing the national policy. The study also investigates whether the role of the regional satraps in the making of India's foreign policy has not only increased but also will continue to grow. Political pulls and pressures, demands and influences particularly from the States, which border on the neighbouring countries, constrict the Centre's authority in the making of India's foreign policy over the decades. A look at India's map shows that barring Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Haryana, almost all Indian States have borders with a foreign country or share international waters.

It is also due to the advent of coalition politics in the past three decades since the regional parties had become partners not only at the Centre but also in some States. The Centre had come under the grip of the powerful regional satraps (most of whom have founded their own parties) playing a consistent role limiting the freedom and flexibility of the Centre in dealing with the neighbours. Will their number increase because of the splintering of the polity, as the national parties are not able to meet the aspirations of the people? Will they come together and form a pressure group? The study will also go into these aspects.

It should also be noted that the regional chieftains are strong in their own right because of their electoral strength. The present Modi government has emerged with a single party majority after 30 years but it is too early to predict whether coalition politics has ended. The next elections may again throw up a coalition government. The spectacular performance of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections proves that even after a stellar performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls the Bharatiya Janata Party could be routed. The downslide has continued for the BJP in the 2015 November Bihar elections where it lost miserably to the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress Party combine.

Has the Union Government understood the importance of the growing influence of the Provincial Chieftains while formulating the foreign policy? To a certain extent it has. This was evident in the present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government taking the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on board to sign the long pending Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh in June 2015. This could develop into a new long- term element in the making of the neighbourhood policy of the Centre.

In the Indian federal setup, States play a key role in implementing the economic reforms and social schemes while the Centre makes the broad policies. Since the opening up of the Indian economy in the nineties, many States are vying with each other to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). States benefit from foreign aided projects in socio economic sectors. They can use the money for development of their respective States.

If one looks at India's neighbourhood, two main challenges are clear. One is with its big neighbouring adversaries – Pakistan and China – as both are major countries with nuclear weapons with large standing armies and have had major wars with India. Both support each other and have strong international allies inside and outside the region. In dealing with the Pakistan – China challenges, New Delhi still had complete authority in making and executing foreign policy.

The second is that India's neighbours perceive it as selfish and overbearing. They resent what they perceive as India's 'big brother' or some even call it a 'big bully' attitude towards its smaller neighbours. However, remarkable changes have recently taken place in the second area of concern in the neighbourhood particularly with regard to engagement with countries bordering India- Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal.

Ambassador Satish Chandra, Dean, Centre for National Security and Strategic Centre points out that most of our neighbours suffer from a deep sense of neglect due to the absence of sustained linkages particularly at the political level. Exchange of high level visits between India and its neighbours on a frequent and regular basis related to the entire gamut of national activity would help alleviate this feeling of neglect and also foster closer understanding and cooperation. It would, in addition, minimise misperceptions about India and promotes mutual trust. He suggests that in its exchanges with each of its neighbours India must not hesitate in spelling out its expectations and laying down red lines that should never be crossed in relation to its core interests. In this context, while India could be relatively relaxed about the linkages developed by its neighbours with other regional or extra regional powers it should certainly frown upon such linkages being used against its interest.

Moreover proactive steps need to be taken to resolve at the earliest long-standing political and economic disputes with each of India's neighbours. "Joint management of waters, connectivity, energy grids, easier movement of peoples etc. could all form part of this exercise. India's implementation record in fulfilment of political and economic understandings solemnly undertaken leaves much to be desired. Time bound fulfilment of its promises is essential if India is to command respect."

The Northeast is a particularly a sensitive region of India. These States called 'Seven Sisters' have international borders and have a special significance for India's security, connectivity and prosperity. They have huge stakes on India's relations with the neighbouringcountries. Northeast is also a key element of the India's "Look East" policy, which involves relations with the 10member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now talking of "Act East" policy, an improvement on the "Look East" policy. An increase in the connectivity between ASEAN, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and the Northeast has the potential of transforming the region fundamentally.

The Role of Union Government

The Indian Constitution clearly defines the powers to the Centre and the States and also some concurrent powers. Unlike the United States of America all the residuary powers are vested with the Centre and not with the States. Despite all these, they are extremely important and are gradually beginning to take more assertive role. "For example Washington overruled Hudson Harmon's argument absolute sovereignty over natural resources in conceding Mexico's claims for compensation on the Rio Grande and Ottawa has deftly managed Quebec's unceasing efforts to tilt the country towards the Francophone by categorically asserting its right to Treaty making powers," former Foreign Secretary Krishnan Srinivasan points out.

It is pertinent to note that no formal structure exists in India, where the States can interact with the Ministry of External Affairs. Further, they are not allowed to have direct dealings with foreign countries nor are they allowed to establish offices abroad, as is the practice in some countries like Canada and Australia. The States have been involved only at the implementation level. It is the Union Government, which has the powers of Treaty making. Article 253 of the Constitution excludes the States as well as the Parliament from the exercise of Treaty making. The Parliament comes into the picture only in case a law is required for the implementation of a Treaty, while the States are totally excluded.

Border States and Provincial Leaders

In the past three decades regional parties have been increasingly trying to exercise some influence over foreign policy especially with regardto India's neighbouring countries. In certain cases, they have even intervened on issues what previously would have been considered the exclusive domain of the Union Government. This is mainly because of the increasing clout of the regional parties and the fracturing of the polity as well as the weakening of the Centre.

In recent times the States as well as Parliament are also becoming assertive claiming some influence in the power of Treaty making. The classic example was how the Left parties, which were national in character supporting the United Progressive Alliance 1 (UPA) coalition, opposed the Indo – US nuclear Treaty in Parliament and outside and even withdrew their support in 2008 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went ahead with it. Ironically it was a regional party headed by Mulayam Singh (Samajwadi Party), which came to the rescue of Dr Manmohan Singh in getting the measure passed in Parliament. In the early nineties some States like the Communist-ruled West Bengal opposed the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Treaty when they felt that it impinged on their right as they felt that it affected agriculture. In recent times some States like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu opposed the proposal for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail sector. In September 2011, at a bilateral summit meeting between the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a number of agreements were signed, but the Teesta River water- sharing accord was deferred due to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee backing out at the last minute. However, she came on board later and accompanied the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited Dhaka in June 2015 to sign the other important Land Boundary Agreement, which was finally endorsed by Indian Parliament after 41 years. These examples are suggestive of how federalism in India is gradually undergoing a change.

The Ascendency of Regionalism

The ascendancy of regionalism in recent years has come about in a natural way. Just as the social map of India is complex its political map is also changing with the growing regionalism. The traditional notion of foreign relations has also changed remarkably over the years. The nature of the diplomatic relations too has undergone changes, as they are no more limited to the earlier concept of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and nationality. Foreign policy included economic and cultural diplomacy apart from the normal diplomatic dialogue. It has now come to include security, social, environment, trade, investment another aspects. That is why the Indian government has started setting up separate wings in the embassies abroad to specifically deal with these issues. Although India is a diverse country with diverse culture many still debate whether it matters when it comes to foreign policy.

Economic Diplomacy

As the globalisation becomes the order of the day the economic diplomacy too has become a major part of India's foreign policy. Now broader issues of international affairs like the foreign trade, foreign aid, external investment, bilateral and multilateral economic negotiations, resolving trade disputes, and technological exchanges have become key ingredients of international economic affairs. Also unprecedented developments in trade and the industrial sector in recent decades have made involvement of the diplomats in the promotion of trade and business in the overseas market.

The economic cooperation in the region has become focused and growing, as most countries have realized the real importance of the economic clout. A shining example is how the United States and China are dealing with each other keeping aside their political and ideological differences. Interestingly, it is on the economic diplomacy that New Delhi has been able to achieve progress even with Pakistan and China.

Former Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey observes, "India's neighbours are its best and natural partners in economic cooperation. Geographical proximity, common languages, religion and consumption patterns and the inheritance of common institutional and physical infrastructures from its colonial past, confer on India, by way of reducing transaction costs, competitive advantages over countries outside the region, in trading and forging other links of economic cooperation with neighbouring countries."

Yet another factor was the overwhelming technological revolution, which has shrunk the world. Above all, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disenchantment with the ideological battles have also combined to give a higher profile to economic diplomacy. World over there is a new realisation that it is not power politics or war but the economic muscle and the economic ascendency, which yield results. China is a classic example of this awareness. From the nineties even India has acquired some economic muscle because of its attractive market and liberalisation. There is a growing realization that war is becoming costly and avoidable.


Excerpted from "Regional Satraps and the Battle for India's Foreign Policy"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA).
Excerpted by permission of Vij Books India Pvt Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Preface, Chapter 1 Introduction, Chapter 2 India and Sri Lanka, Chapter 3 India and Bangladesh, Chapter 4 India and Nepal, Chapter 5 Conclusions

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