The last few years have seen an interesting dynamic in India’s foreign policy: states influencing, or at least trying to influence, the central government’s foreign policy.
Individual states have long been pursuing economic diplomacy with other countries, but the increased role of the provinces in India’s broader relationship with its neighbours is a more recent phenomenon.
On many occasions, it has been alliance partners that have been most aggressively pushing their cases, with the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam’s pressing the United Progressive Alliance government to look out for the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka being only one example.
However, non-alliance partners have also pressed the central government. For example, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed of the People's Democratic Partypushed for the opening of the Sri Nagar-Muzzafarabad bus route, which received unflinching support from the Bhartiya Janta Party-led central government, even though the PDP was allied with the opposition Congress.
One question is how far this trend of states helping set the foreign policy agenda will go? In part, it will depend on the political clout of the state’s ruling party – it will either have to have numerical relevance to the central government, as was the case with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, or else the issue should have particular resonance with central government priorities (the PDP’s demand to open bus links between the two Kashmirs is a particularly good example of this).
Another interesting question is whether states that aren’t a numerically significant player in a coalition – or at least able to bring significant public support to the table – can play a major role in foreign policy initiatives. The answer to this is probably no. The Northeastern states, which have failed to really pressure the government over making borders more porous with neighbouring countries like Burma, are a case in point.
At the end of the day, the central government has to take the lead in foreign policy, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. Still, with state governments sometimes having a bigger economic interest in pushing for closer links with neighbouring countries than the central government, expect their efforts to continue.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation