Spreading democracy

Since the end of cold war not only the nature of world politics has changed, but also its idioms and vocabulary.

One is reminded of a statement of former US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, “For the first time since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the prospect of war is becoming even more unthinkable (than before). Major powers are competing in peace and not preparing for war.” If engagement, communication and dialogue are the buzz words of contemporary international relations, parliamentary diplomacy is poised to play increasingly important role in the relationship between and among nations.

 There is a parallel diplomatic architecture being developed alongside the executive to supplement and not to supplant the role of the executive in foreign policy making. Although traditionally, foreign policy has been in the domain of the executive, in recent years political resonance has impelled Parliament to increasingly important role in foreign policy making. The Indo-US nuclear deal is a glaring illustration to vindicate how Parliament can play an important role on foreign policy issues.
Related to the issue of Parliament’s role in foreign policy making is the exchange of parliamentary delegations and its utility which has been raised in the media some time back.

General tendency has been to trivialise such visits as mere foreign jaunts or at best goodwill visits that does not serve much purpose. Such perception persists due to lack of proper understanding of the true intent of such visits.

They are not expected to or mandated to sign agreements or MoUs with the host countries, which pertain to the domain of the executive. But the fact is that such visits are in the nature of what is called ‘track II’ diplomacy that supplement and compliment the executive in promoting better relationship between the two countries and  their parliaments.

 It is not always possible on the part of the heads of the state or the government or even for that matter the foreign minister to visit foreign countries as often as required due to constraints of time or of protocol.

In such a situation when a parliamentary delegation consisting members from different political parties visit a foreign country under the leadership  of the presiding officer (Speaker or the Chairman), who occupies quite a high position in the warrant of precedent, it produces a positive vibe and creates a comfort level for summit level meetings.

Besides, it provides a good opportunity to share views and ideas with the counterpart in a very free and frank manner, which is not possible when diplomats and bureaucrats meet to discuss contentious issues due to some limitations. It can also provide an opportunity to test difficult ground and gauge the mood and attitude of the host country on recalcitrant issues before the government takes it up with the other side.
Better understanding

No wonder, therefore, there is a tendency the world over to send parliamentary delegations as messengers of goodwill and forge understanding and cooperation between governments of various countries.

In India in the recent past, a parliamentary delegation led by Sushma Swaraj, the leader of Opposition visited Sri Lanka and held discussions with various political parties and with the Sri Lankan president to facilitate better understanding between the two countries.

A number of parliamentary delegations from neighbouring Afghanistan, Myanmar and Nepal have visited India in quick succession.

At a time when these countries are in political transition India with its experience in democracy and parliamentary polity holds a beacon of hope. These countries can look forward to learn a great deal from India’s experience of holding elections, parliamentary practice and procedure. India should thoughtfully showcase its democratic prowess to have a sustainable and durable engagement with these nascent democracies.

It was also reported in the media that the government of Myanmar deeply appreciated the intellectual input that the parliamentary delegation received from the Bureau of Parliamentary Studies and Training, an outfit of Indian Parliament.

Next to ICT, India’s democratic experience has tremendous potential to project the country’s soft power. In fact, India is going to offer more technical assistance under its flagship Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) to Myanmar so as to enable its parliamentary officials to better equip them with parliamentary practice and procedure.

There is no need for the new democracies to send their officers to places like the House of Commons or the Royal Institute Public Administration, which have very little in common in terms political nuances and milieus.
Besides, exchange of parliamentary delegations, multilateral parliamentary forums like the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) also provide good platforms to showcase India’s foreign policy to the larger audience of legislatures, who are policy makers.

An Indian perspectives on issues such as climate change, protectionism, non-proliferation, disarmaments, terrorism and drug trafficking are disseminated at such meetings. This helps improve the perceptions of legislators from different countries.

Now that there are India caucuses or groups in many foreign parliaments such as the US Congress and the Senate, House of Commons in UK, Australia and Canada, it is high time that there is thoughtful interaction with such groups through diplomacy.

At a time when issues relating to India and legislative Bills having a bearing on India are discussed in these parliaments, it makes sense to engage and connect with them creatively instead of spending money in engaging professional lobbyists.

(The writer is an officer of Lok Sabha secretariat at present on deputation to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis)

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