Changing dynamics

As time passes by, Indian states are likely to play a more active role in matters related to foreign affairs and security issues.

The role of the Central government in the making and execution of foreign policy is fast changing in the epoch of globalisation and knotty coalition politics in India. Gone are the days when foreign policy and diplomacy was the exclusive domain of government of India.


External powers have off late been directing their attention on various state governments in India. Some of the state level leaders appear to have developed interest in engaging directly with foreign governments. The Central government, moreover, has been progressively coming under pressure from some states to hear their voice and protect their interest while crafting foreign policies.  

Several developments in this regard are noteworthy. To begin with, when US President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, his itinerary included a stopover in Hyderabad, among other places, even as Andhra chief minister Chandrababu Naidu appeared keen to showcase the city as an up-and-coming high-tech city. During the Bush presidency, noted American diplomat Henry Kissinger arrived in Kolkata to convince West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya the benefits of the proposed Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. President Barack Obama in November 2010 first landed in Mumbai, the finance capital of India, before coming to Delhi to engage with the Central leadership.

US Secretary of State has made visits to Mumbai as part her public diplomacy exercise; to Chennai where she has made significant policy announcement on Asia Pacific; and to Kolkata to interact with chief minister Mamata Banerjee amid speculation that she would seek to soften Mamata’s opposition to foreign investment in the retail sector.

Secondly, other external powers, such as China and Japan have shown considerable interest to cultivate some states to promote their respective economic interests. China in 2011 and 2012 extended a red carpet welcome to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Last month, Modi got a red carpet welcome in Japan where he met with top leaders and business tycoons, perhaps becoming first ever leader of a federated state to receive such attention from the government of Japan. Others like former chief minister of Karnataka, B S Yeddyurrappa and current chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan have also travelled abroad to promote their respective states’ economic interests.

The interaction between the leaders of the Indian states and foreign governments exemplifies an emerging facet to Indian foreign policy and diplomacy. The US government issuing reports on Human Rights conditions and state of religious freedom in some of the Indian states has not drawn any critical remarks or perhaps even serious notice of the Indian government. Nor did the Indian government take up with earnestness and gravity the US decision not to grant visa to Narendra Modi. But the Gujarat chief minister has taken steps himself to boost his international image by nurturing close ties with China and Japan.

Studied silence

Whether one should draw a co-relation between rejection of visa application of Modi by the US; and China and Japan extending red carpet welcome to Modi is debatable. But widespread perception exists that there is more to Modi’s trip to China and Japan than
pure economics.  The Central government, of course, maintains studied silence.

As time passes by, Indian states are likely to play more active role in matters related to foreign affairs and security issues. Indications are already rife, as can be seen in Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha’s opposition to Sri Lankan Air Force officers getting training in Chennai. The concerned officers were shifted to Bangalore. The influence of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Indo-Bangladesh relations, especially Teesta River dispute is well known.

While the liberalisation of the Indian economic policy since 1991, rapid pace of globalisation and increasing tempo of integration of Indian economy with the global economy will inevitably allow various states to play more and more active role in shaping the country’s foreign policy; the coalition politics in India will increasingly complicate Indian foreign policy decision making.

Tamil Nadu’s internal politics and the equation of its government with the Central government may influence India’s Sri Lanka policy in the future. Kerala would like to sway India’s policy towards the Persian Gulf. West Bengal and some of the Northeastern states will perhaps seek a role in Indian policy towards adjoining countries.

At the moment, the government of Jammu and Kashmir plays little role in India’s policy towards China or Pakistan, although the state certainly gets affected by it. The government of Arunachal Pradesh has not lent its voice on the visa policy of China. It would not be startling if these states become new actors in decision making in this area in the future.

In other words, the recent trend shows that foreign policy decision making in India will be more thorny, perhaps more democratic, but at the same time more challenging in times to come. The Ministry of External Affairs has a public diplomacy wing that has become very energetic in recent years to promote public awareness in the country on foreign policy matters. But given the nature of Indian politics, as it is, the MEA officials will find that the dynamics of state and national politics will make their job harder in years to come.

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