Foreign Relations in India: A Growing State Role

Foreign Relations in India:
A Growing State Role
The constitution of India gives the federal government in New Delhi virtually
exclusive jurisdiction over issues of foreign and defense policy. In
practice too, the federal government has exercised strong control over
India’s external relations since the constitution came into force in 1950.
The constituent unit states have, with some notable exceptions, played little
role in the formulation or the implementation of the country’s foreign
relations. This centralized control has begun to weaken, however, over the
past decade or so. A variety of factors are responsible, and this gentle erosion
of federal authority, de facto if not de jure, would appear likely to continue
over the next decade. This gradual loosening of the centralized control on
foreign policy is seemingly not a conscious or voluntary act by the Union
Even a fleeting glance at the seventh schedule of the constitution of
India reveals that the Union Government has almost absolute powers to
frame and implement foreign and defense policy decisions in the country.
This schedule of the Indian constitution sets out the division of powers
and contains three lists: the union list, the state list and the concurrent list.
The federal government legislates on the subject matters mentioned
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28 Amitabh Mattoo / Happymon Jacob
under the union list while constituent units legislate on items mentioned
under the state list. The concurrent list includes items on which both the
federal government as well as the state governments have joint jurisdiction.
Neither the state list nor the concurrent list mentions any items that
directly deal with the foreign or defense policy of India. Under such circumstances,
it is necessary to look for evidence outside the constitutional
framework. Are there cases in which the constituent units have been able
to influence foreign and defense policy decisions of the country through
extra-constitutional means and practices?
While the states have virtually no direct constitutional jurisdiction over
foreign relations, in practice the reality is emerging somewhat differently.
Since the early 1990s there has been a gradual weakening of the tight grip
that the federal government has held on the country’s foreign policy.
There seem to be four inter-related reasons for this growing influence of
constituent units on foreign policymaking. First,
the special constitutional status given to a particular
state, such as the autonomous status granted
to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, may give the
state’s political leadership a voice in the foreign
policy making of the country. In the recent past,
the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti
Mohammed Sayeed, was able to influence India’s
policy toward Pakistan. Sayeed is widely regarded
as the architect of several confidence-building
measures that were introduced between the two
countries. These include the resumption of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus
service across the line of control that divides Jammu and Kashmir between
India and Pakistan, as well as the unprecedented collaboration between
Islamabad and New Delhi after the devastating earthquake in Jammu and
Kashmir in the fall of 2005.
Second, the political weight of a leader of a particular state can also influence
foreign policy making, albeit in an informal manner. The example of
Amrinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, is illustrative of this. Singh
reached out to Pakistan’s Punjab on the basis of a shared cultural tradition,
Punjabiyat, and this policy received considerable popular support within
Indian Punjab. In another instance, the Kashmiri Leader, Sheikh Abdullah
went to Pakistan as Prime Minister Nehru’s emissary in 1964, and is believed
to have even worked out an understanding with President Ayub Khan. This
understanding could not, however, translate into reality since Nehru
passed away even while the Sheikh was still in Pakistan. Similarly, political
heavyweights from the southern state of Tamil Nadu have been able to
exercise considerable influence on New Delhi’s policy towards Sri Lanka.
Third, coalition governments at the federal level have provided space for
state governments and leaders to exercise greater say on foreign policy
While the states
have virtually no
direct constitutional
jurisdiction over
foreign relations, in
practice the reality
is emerging somewhat
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India 29
issues. Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, was
often consulted on major foreign policy initiatives by the federal government
because Naidu’s party was an important coalition partner at the
federal level.
Finally, while the constitutional position may not have undergone
change, the forces of globalization have created new practices and possibilities
that may give the constituent units a greater role in the future. This
can be seen especially in the case of foreign economic policy making.
Many international financial agencies and institutions, for instance, are
negotiating directly with the state governments in India. Independent discussions
and negotiations are held between agencies and organizations,
such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, UNICEF, UNDP and
the various state governments. The state of Andhra Pradesh even has a
World Trade Organization (WTO) cell to deal with WTO issues. With the
Southern Indian states becoming the hubs of software development and
focal points for foreign investment, the federal government has to weigh
the policy preferences of these states while making foreign economic
policy. Moreover, with the competition for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)
increasing among the Indian states, top officials from the state governments
often take the initiative of traveling abroad to negotiate terms and
conditions for the investment with the organizations concerned. Antiglobalization
movements in various parts of the country have also exhibited
the power to influence the terms and conditions of investment and production
in particular regions.
The forces of regional integration have also created space within which
constituent units have begun to play a role. Pressure from the government
of Sikkim helped to speed up the opening of the traditional trade links
between the Indian state of Sikkim and China across the Nathula pass. The
chief minister of Sikkim, Pawan Chamling, had even set up a study group
which strongly recommended the opening of the route. Similarly, the state
of West Bengal has greatly supported the Bay of Bengal Initiative for
MultiSectoral Technical and Economic cooperation (BIMSTEC) initiative
which links South Asia to South East Asia and seeks to create a Bay of
Bengal economic community. This would have the potential to make
Kolkata (the capital of the state of West Bengal) once again the hub of
trade and commerce as it had been in the early years of the 20th century.
This slow but steady change taking place in the formulation of the country’s
foreign policy is widely welcomed. India, a diverse and plural country
requires a change in its style of policy formulation in order to be really in
tune with its heterogeneous reality. A more consultative, organic and creative
style of foreign policy will be more in sync with the needs of the people and
could form the basis of a real national consensus.
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