Raising the State in India’s Foreign Policy

blank Tridivesh Singh Maini
Senior Research Associate, The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat

In recent years, state governments have begun to be acknowledged as important stakeholders in foreign policy, not just by scholars, but by successive central governments. This, in spite of the fact that matters pertaining to foreign policy fall under the Union List in the Indian Constitution. The participation of states in foreign policy has been visible over the past two decades, and is a consequence of a number of factors— economic liberalization, the rise of strong regional leaders, strong presence of Indian diaspora in certain states.

Steps taken by state government

In the past 16 months, states have played an increasing role in foreign policy for a number of reasons. Current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his earlier role as Chief Minister of Gujarat had reached out to a number of countries seeking Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Apart from holding a bi-annual investors summit, Vibrant Gujarat, he also led delegations to a number of countries including Japan, China and Singapore. This outreach enabled him not just to attract FDI, but also sent an unequivocal message to the outside world, that economic diplomacy was no longer driven only by the centre. Before Modi, other Chief Ministers like Chandrababu Naidu (Andhra Pradesh) and SM Krishna (Karnataka) also left no stone unturned in seeking investment for their states, and were reasonably successful, as has been argued in ‘The Iconization of Chandrababu: Sharing Sovereignty in India’s Federal Market Economy’ (Economic and Political Weekly, May 2001) Modi has on repeated occasions alluded to the need for ‘cooperative federalism’, i.e. a healthy relationship between New Delhi and the states, irrespective of the political configuration at the centre and states. It would be pertinent to point out that while campaigning for national elections, Modi had spoken in favor of greater rights and authority not just in the domestic context, but in the domain of foreign policy as well. One recommendation which he had made during the campaign was that each state should reach out to one specific country.

Steps taken by central government

Ever since taking over as Prime Minister, Modi has also given a greater thrust on greater city-city and state-state linkages. The PM’s speeches at multilateral forums like BRICS, and some of the steps taken during international visits reiterate this point. While visiting Japan an agreement was signed between Kyoto and Varanasi, with a specific thrust on the former learning from the latter about conservation of historical sites. Modi, also inaugurated the first regional leaders forum during his visit to China in May 2015. This forum is similar to an annual forum held between US and Chinese Governors who hold a dialogue on a numerous issues, beyond just economic concerns. While inaugurating the dialogue, the PM articulated the reasons for the importance of such linkages, which included not just his personal experience as Chief Minister, but also elucidating that having a larger number of stakeholders will only enhance the scale of exchanges and their quality.
During Modi’s visit, sister city and province arrangements were signed to operationalize sister city agreements between Chennai-Chongqing, Hyderabad-Qingdao and Aurangabad-Dunhuang. An agreement was signed to operationalize sister province agreement between the state of Karnataka and Sichuan Province. Earlier in 2013, during erstwhile Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure, agreements were also signed to establish sister city status between Delhi-Beijing, Bangalore-Chengdu and Kolkata-Kunming. Already, there has been an increase in linkages between states-provinces, such as those between Guangdong and states like Gujarat and Maharashtra. As a result of the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM Corridor), linkages between Kunming and Kolkata have also been strengthened and both are sister cities. Good beginnings have been made in the direction of sub-national participation in foreign policy, specifically in the context of economic relations; yet, some steps need to be taken to make this phenomenon more effective. More than just a few states should interact because apart from economic cooperation there are a number of areas where sub-national units can explore synergies. For instance in areas like tourism, culture (especially in the context of Buddhism), agriculture, sports and environment there is scope for linkages between a number of states and provinces, in fields which have not been tapped hitherto. Currently, there is a tendency to focus on economic cooperation and if one were to look at the list of exchanges, they are mostly between states which are economic heavy weights. It is also important for sister city agreements and sister province agreements to be taken more seriously, and not just as mere MOU’s. In the case of China-US relations, sister-city and sister province linkages have actually played a positive role in building people-to-people contact, as well as economic links between these two countries, which otherwise share numerous differences.

It would be useful to tap the Indian diaspora and examine provinces and cities in other countries where there is a significant and influential Indian population. State governments such as Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, have been pro-active in reaching out to the diaspora, hoping to utilize them more effectively for enhancing linkages with cities/provinces where they are in large numbers. In conclusion, it would be fair to say that sub-national linkages are likely to play an important role in India’s foreign policy, but there is need to institutionalize this process and also to ensure that it does not remain restricted to a few states.