The Pulse

Making Room for Indian States in Foreign Policy

If India wants its states to help boost ties with neighbors, the central government needs to move beyond mere slogans.

Making Room for Indian States in Foreign Policy

The inauguration of the Global Trade Show and Pravasi Bhartiya Divas Exhibition in Gandhinagar, Gujrat (January 7, 2015).

Credit: Flickr/ MEA photo gallery

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will mark three years in office in May 2017, has consistently argued in favor of greater participation by state governments in foreign policy – especially in the context of strengthening trade ties and seeking foreign direct investment. The 2014 BJP manifesto also spoke in favor of “involving state governments in promotion of foreign trade and commerce.”

This strong conviction about the greater involvement of states in foreign policy arose from Modi’s experience as chief minister of Gujarat. While in that post, Modi visited Japan, China, and Singapore and as a consequence met the top political leaders of these countries.

Cooperative and Competitive Federalism

Modi has spoken on numerous occasions in favor of both “cooperative federalism” and “competitive federalism.” Cooperative federalism refers to a cordial relationship between the center and states, irrespective of the political affiliations of state governments. Competitive federalism refers to the need for states to compete with each other for foreign direct investment (FDI). Both cooperative federalism and competitive federalism are key hallmarks of the Modi government’s economic and foreign policy. The PM has spoken about this on more than one occasion, as have other officials. During a reception hosted for 25 U.S. governors, including Terry Branstad of Iowa, who has been appointed as the U.S. envoy to China, India’s Ambassador Navtej Singh Sarna referred to the increasing importance of state governments both in domestic as well as foreign policy.

One of the secrets of China’s success has been the proactive role by provinces in drawing foreign investment. In addition to this, they have also sought to enhance people-to-people linkages with countries like the United States and Australia through sister province and sister city agreements. William Antholis in his book Inside out India and China: Local Politics Go Global (2014) compares the role played by Chinese provinces and Indian states in the economic development of their respective countries.

In India, states have been reaching out to the outside world for the past two decades; it would be unfair to argue that this trend began only in 2014 with Modi’s ascension. In the late 1990s, states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh wooed investors. Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh at the time (and again today), managed to impress Bill Gates; Microsoft set up its first development centers in Hyderabad (now the capital of Telangana). Two U.S. presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, also visited Hyderabad. Later on Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, led delegations to East Asia and Southeast Asia and also began the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in 2003.

Role of State Governments in Ties With Neighbors

With India’s increasing emphasis on improving ties with neighboring countries over the past decade and a half, border states have been encouraged to reach out to neighbors with whom they share contiguous borders. The previous UPA government led by Dr. Manmohan Singh was supportive of such initiatives. Two clear instances of this policy were Tripura’s efforts to reach out to Bangladesh, and Punjab reaching out to Pakistan. There was a cross-party political consensus on this approach. In fact, Tripura at the time was run by the CPM (Communist Party Marxist), yet initiatives taken by this non-Congress government were fully supported by the central government. All these efforts, however, were overshadowed by the obstructionist roles of other state governments such as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, which adversely impacted India’s ties with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Ever since the NDA government and Modi came into power, there have been attempts to institutionalize the participation of states in foreign policy, and there has been a greater emphasis on the economic dimension of foreign policy. The Ministry of External Affairs has even set up a division of states to coordinate such initiatives. The central government has lent its support to increasing the role of states in several ways.

For example, during Modi’s visit to China in May 2015, the two sides inaugurated a provincial level dialogue. Ever since, a number of state delegations have visited China and a number of states, such as Gujarat, have forged sister province relationships with Chinese provinces. India has also invited foreign dignitaries to visit a number of cities beyond the national capital. President Xi Jinping, during his visit to India, landed in Ahmedabad; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Varanasi. High-profile MEA events like the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas are held in different parts of India, with the most recent one being held in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka.

The states themselves have also taken steps to increase their role on the global stage. Apart from leading delegations abroad to seek investment, states have begun to host large scale investor summits. At these summits, states have sought to build links in other areas such as education and tourism. States from eastern India (Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal) and states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, earlier dubbed as BIMARU states, too have been reaching out to the outside world, and have held investors summits.

With states becoming key drivers of India’s economic growth, it is only natural that states will emerge as key stakeholders in the country’s foreign policy. A few steps need to be taken however, to make this process more purposeful

First, while Modi has encouraged states to reach out to the outside world, so far on his overseas visits he has been accompanied only by BJP chief ministers. It is important that he be accompanied by chief ministers from other parties as well. During his visit to Bangladesh for instance, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the All India Trinamool Congress was in Bangladesh, but she had arrived earlier.

Second, while the dialogues with China are encouraging, it is important for a larger number of state governments to participate in such dialogues. Currently, some states have taken the lead, but it is important that these dialogues are not restricted only to a few states. Efforts should be made to develop provincial dialogues with other countries as well. States should be involved in dialogues with countries where there is a significant diaspora, or where state governments have significant economic interests.

Third, as northeast is a key stakeholder in India’s ties with Southeast Asia, it is important to ensure political and economic stability if the region is to emerge as a gateway to the east.

While states are likely to play a key role in India’s links with the outside world, it is important that both New Delhi as well as state governments do not allow political differences to influence this process. While some significant beginnings have been made India must learn from the successes of countries like China, which have successfully harnessed their provinces.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.