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For a federal foreign policy

For a federal foreign policy
The Indian Union has a division of power between entities called Centre and states in a way that the People’s Republic of Bangladesh does not. The constitution of the Union of India is a product of interests of the Centre, given that only the Parliament and not the state assemblies can change it.
In fact, the Centre has power to make new states, abolish existing ones, change existing state boundaries and so on, as it deems fit. If political forces of the states have to oppose central decisions, they need to do that through political agitation.

This is the fear the Centre carries sometimes, especially in case of big states. Irrespective of the government in New Delhi, the Centre does not want to be seen completely opposed to a popular mood of a state because then that party risks spiralling into political irrelevance in the state. This is why the Centre loves those states where the Congress and the BJP are the two main political poles, because on most issues, these two parties share a wide-ranging consensus.

Most instances of Centre-State dispute are in states where non-Congress, non-BJP forces are strong and are around issues where BJP and Congress are in near-complete agreement with each other. No wonder, Delhi-based media and think-tanks have for years propagated a virulent campaign against so-called ‘regional’ forces, essentially terming them to be disruptive to the beautiful vision of the nation conjured up by the Congress-BJP combine.

Federalism or the cooperative relationship between the Centre and the states, by their ideology, is a necessary evil at best. While they wish of an India whose political space is contested and divided neatly between the BJP and Congress, it is the people of this subcontinent who frustrate the apparatchiks at Delhi by electing such political forces in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and elsewhere and put the interest of the their state first. They refuse to become a mere jagirdar in an imperial system run from New Delhi.

One thing needs to be noted though. The laws that are enacted by Parliament in Delhi (representing something intangible called the ‘Centre’) and the political reality of the states are often not in consonance with each other. Political reality, by the way, is a cute word that is used to signify a ‘problem’ for the high-fangled ideals of Central laws. But political realities, when translated into real-world terms, mean mass public opinion – the same public in whose name laws and constitutions are made and amended. This gulf between law book and the opinion of the people is quite acute when it comes to external affairs.

Lets look at the law-book then. According to the constitution of the Indian Union, the Centre can change territorial borders, take ‘foreign’ land, give away ‘own’ land and so on. The state assembly has no role in such decision-making nor does popular opinion of the affected state technically matter.
The Land Boundary Agreement between the Indian Union and Bangladesh will exchange certain pockets of land that lie surrounded by ‘alien’ territory (that is a pocket of Bangladesh land completely enclosed by territories of the Indian Union). There are any number of political forces that whip up Jihadi fervor on the supposed ‘holiness’ of every inch of ‘own’ territory, promising life, blood and what not. ‘Bina judhye nahi debo suchagro medini’ (We will not give up even a needle-point amount of land without war) – goes the political line of the Kaurabs in the epic Mahabharat. This absurd jingoism is in prominent display at the icy heights of Siachen, for which a hungry, diseased subcontinent pays through its nose, day in, day out.

But when the loudest thikadars of ‘holiness’ decide otherwise, the sacredness of their ‘own’ land somehow evaporates. This bluff cannot be called out because the ‘nationalists’ have always been in private agreement on these issues, whatever their public stances may have been. In an unequal centre-state relationship, the political opinion of a state can be ‘managed’ by offering ‘deals’ – that range from special grants to varying speed of investigations. So much for ‘holiness’. This is corruption and this must end as soon as possible.

The interests and counter-interests of almost all nation-states in South Asia have a lot to do with each other. Much of the Indian Union’s external affairs pertain to neighbouring nations. Some states of the Union share borders with these nations. These states must have more than consultative role in issues pertaining to these neighbouring nations, especially if these agreements affect subjects in the ‘State list’. For example, land exchange has an effect on land revenue and many other things that are squarely in the state’s jurisdiction. We know the farce-like ‘consultative’ process that the Centre holds with states on such issues. In a democracy, public opinion in the states must be respected; near-unanimous resolutions in state assemblies have to have some value.

On agreements with neighbouring nations, affected border-states must have veto power. This means, West Bengal (and others) and Tamil Nadu have to have an official say in Delhi’s dealings with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The Delhi Dhaka Express has to pass via Kolkata. A federal democratic republic like the Indian Union has to fundamentally renegotiate the division of power between the centre and states in the favour of the latter so that federalism and democracy survive in reality and not only in the unaccountable ‘spirit of the constitution’. ’We, the people’ cannot ignore the people of the states indefinitely. IPA
Garga Chatterjee

Garga Chatterjee

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