No unity in foreign policy in India

The recent US presidential debates clearly brought to the fore the fact that presidential hopefuls in that country give immense importance to foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan, the Middle East and China. Interestingly, the average American may not be particularly interested in world affairs and even certain presidential candidates are not too well versed on matters of foreign policy.

On the contrary in India, during election campaigns no political party clearly articulates its foreign policy. While there is no doubt that the position of political parties on ties with Pakistan, China, US do find some space in election manifestos, they are nothing more than a mere footnote. Apart from this, foreign policy does come up whenever an opposition party wants to accuse the sitting government of surrendering India’s interests to the US, or not showing enough strength in dealing with Pakistan and China.

Ironically, even though little attention is devoted to foreign policy issues many Indian PM’s, including the current incumbent, have performed better in the sphere of foreign policy. Singh’s key success as the PM has been pushing Indo-US ties as well as improving relations with countries in the neighbourhood.

It is highly unlikely, that in the near future the two political parties will focus more on foreign policy issues during election campaigns or in their manifestos beyond off course proving their nationalistic credentials and attacking other political outfits for not having a robust foreign policy.

It is important in this context, to analyse the increasing interest of certain chief ministers in increasing linkages between their respective states and other countries – in India’s neighborhood and outside. These initiatives are of two types.

If one were to look at overtures by state chief ministers towards countries outside India’s neighbourhood, the trend began in the 1990’s when chief ministers like Chandrababu Naidu left no stone unturned in wooing investors from the US.

 In recent years, state governments of Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have been making efforts to woo other foreign governments, which have also begun to realise the increasing political clout of states. Hillary Clinton’s meetings with Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee and the UK government’s decision to re-engage with the Gujarat government and Narendra Modi, after a decade, too should be looked at in this context.

If one were to look at the role being played by chief ministers of India’s border states with neighbouring countries. One of the key reasons is New Delhi’s reduced dependence on SAARC and increased focus on unilateral ties with neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

While there has been a strong opposition to this excessive regionalisation of foreign policy, since certain chief ministers such as Jayalalitha and Banerjee have embarrassed New Delhi.The former along with UPA ally DMK pressurised New Delhi to vote against SL at the UN, and the latter stalled the Teesta River Water Treaty.

At the same time, certain states such as Punjab, Tripura and Arunachal have welcomed the thaw in relations with the neighbouring countries they border – Punjab, Bangladesh and Myanmar. They have been urging the central government for accelerating the pace of trade with these countries, as well as easing the prevalent visa regimes. Interestingly, Modi had also recently mooted the idea of cooperation between Gujarat and neighbouring Sind. Ironically, it was a Pakistani paper The News which carried this story. Not a single Indian paper did so. If one were to do an analysis of why increased participation of state governments in foreign policy is an encouraging sign. There are a number of reasons.

The most important however is that with external ties becoming important for states like Gujarat, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Punjab foreign policy becomes an important issue even at the local level. In certain cases this is not so positive, the most prominent example being of the DMK and AIADMK competing with each other in pressurising the central government to take a strong stand against Sri Lanka on issues pertaining to the Tamil population. Conversely however, in the state of Punjab, all the political outfits of the state are equally desirous of a harmonious relationship with neighbouring Pakistan. There is no better illustration of this fact than the manifestos of political parties of the state for the 2012 state assembly elections. The increasing interest in foreign policy issues at the local level, along with the increasing power of regional parties in coalition politics may compel national parties to clearly define their stand on vexed foreign policy issues.

Second, interactions between state governments and foreign governments are also for chief ministers who may possibly play a larger role at the national level. For example, while the media focused on UK cozying up to the Gujarat CM, they did not devote much time to Bihar CM’s Pak sojourn scheduled in November. Nitish who has been invited by the Pakistani Punjab CM shall be visiting Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore and has many admirers in Pakistan including Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf Chairman, Imran Khan. Thus, greater importance to foreign policy at the regional level may result in actually increasing the significance of foreign policy issues in the overall political discourse.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist
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