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New York Dreams: Kerala’s Subnational Diplomacy

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New York Dreams: Kerala’s Subnational Diplomacy

Kerala’s state leaders have been actively engaging foreign partners, but such visits can spark controversy at home.

New York Dreams: Kerala’s Subnational Diplomacy

Kerala Chief Minster Pinarayi Vijayan (far right) addresses a public gathering of the Loka Kerala Sabha America meeting in Times Square, New York, U.S.

Credit: Twitter/ Pinarayi Vijayan

Paradiplomacy has emerged as an important aspect within the theory and practice of international relations. The phenomenon has enabled sub-states to engage in overseas cooperation and bring foreign investments, generating employment and business opportunities. Within India, the southern Indian state of Kerala has been playing a pivotal role in establishing diplomatic relations with countries in the Middle East and Europe.

Recently, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan embarked on an 8-day diplomatic visit to the United States and Cuba. The official delegation consisted of Vijayan, Finance Minister K.N. Balagopal, Legislative Assembly Speaker A.N Shamseer, Chief Secretary Dr. V.P. Joy, Rajya Sabha MP John Brittas, and other officials. In 2022, the Kerala government had led a diplomatic delegation to Finland, Norway, and Britain.

What does Vijayan’s recent visit to the United States – less than two weeks before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would make his own trip to the U.S. – tell us about Kerala’s paradiplomatic ambitions, opportunities, and challenges?

Understanding Kerala’s Paradiplomacy

To begin with, diaspora diplomacy was a key element in the Kerala delegation’s visit to the United States. On June 10, the Kerala chief minister inaugurated the American regional conference of the Loka Kerala Sabha (an event engaging emigrants from Kerala now residing in different countries). Vijayan’s Malayalam speech at Times Square shows a broader strategy of public diplomacy using the Malayali diaspora community in the United States. The implementation of the Pravasi Mithram digital portal platform will help Kerala connect more closely with the Malayali diaspora. Also, diaspora diplomacy is expected to help in bringing further business investments to Kerala.

Beyond the diaspora, Kerala’s state government was keen to explore further economic opportunities. Vijayan held a meeting with the leadership team of Pfizer pharmaceuticals in New York. While the state officials explained how Kerala’s health sector has performed fairly well over the years, Pfizer officials sought to learn how the state can contribute to the area of pre-clinical research. The discussions explored the possibility of scientific knowledge sharing and establishment of a Pfizer research center in Kerala. Such a collaboration would not only generate employment opportunities in the state, but also improve medical research and healthcare facilities.

The state delegation met with the Word Bank managing director of operations, Anna Bjerde, in the United States, which was followed by an assurance from the bank regarding investments in Kerala’s basic infrastructure. Later, the Board of Directors approved a loan of $150 million in supporting the state’s resilience to climate change, disease outbreaks, and natural disasters. Kerala’s susceptibility to natural disasters was seen during the floods in 2018, and soon after that, the World Bank began to support the government’s “Rebuild Kerala Development Program,” a comprehensive roadmap for a green and resilient Kerala that will be implemented over a period of eight years.

Between 2019 and 2021, $620 million in World Bank funding was committed to cross-sectoral support in disaster management, fiscal sustainability, urban planning, water resources, etc. In May 2023, a team headed by Martin Raiser, the  bank’s vice president for the South Asia region, had held discussions with the Kerala chief minister and reviewed the implementation of projects backed by the World Bank. So far, the World Bank has been able to assist Kerala in restructuring its development paradigm and implementing several policy and institutional reforms.

As a result of expanding subnational diplomacy, the World Bank-Kerala partnership is only expected to reach new heights. Notably, the support from World Bank will limit Kerala’s financial dependence on the central government for developmental projects.

Emerging Challenges

Meanwhile, the Kerala government has been widely criticized over the paradiplomatic visit to New York. The leader of the opposition in the Kerala Legislative Assembly, V.D. Satheesan, said that these diplomatic visits were not going to bring any tangible benefits to the state or the Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs). As Kerala is facing a deepening financial crisis, with the withdrawal limit curbed recently, the opposition parties have argued that foreign visits will only result in draining the public exchequer.

The lack of representation of both NRKs and political parties is another drawback that has been repeatedly pointed out. Even though the government has claimed that Loka Kerala Sabha is aimed at providing an “inclusive, democratic space” for NRKs across the world, the opposition has alleged that the initiative includes only those who are wealthy and close to the state administration.

On the other hand, the lack of cooperation from opposition parties has also proved to be a drawback. Although members from other political parties were part of important committees in the Loka Kerala Sabha initially, they later decided to pull out, alleging that, “it was an unnecessary expense and an event to woo an elite class.” If the government is able to improve the representation of different voices, it will definitely boost the validity of the initiative in the future.

That being the case, the government must ensure that these subnational diplomatic efforts will bring positive results, both for the state as well as the NRKs. As far as the diaspora communities are concerned, the government claimed that it had taken the required measures to implement some of the suggestions that came up in the previous conferences. However, the replies provided to Right to Information (RTI) queries have shown that this is not the case. Of the 138 project suggestions from the second Loka Kerala Sabha (held in 2020), only 59 have been considered so far and 10 of those were rejected. There has been no progress with the 67 suggestions that were received during the third edition of the event in 2022. Therefore, if the government wants to show that it is serious about these initiatives, it is imperative that necessary steps are taken to effectively implement the suggestions.

Further, the expertise and support of the expatriates have to be utilized for the development of the state. During the earlier edition of the conference, some of them raised the issue of lack of protection for the investments made in the state. The government must address these challenges, guarantee the protection of investments, and also promote more projects that can be implemented with the cooperation of other investors in the state.

What Is The Way Forward?

There are two important recommendations that the Kerala state government can consider to better manage their paradiplomatic activities. First, the government should focus on publishing well updated, fact-based annual reports on subnational engagements. The report should emphasize the impact assessment of visits made by diplomatic delegations. These should be made accessible in the public domain for the common people. This will enhance transparency while helping to counter the criticisms over the benefits of these endeavors.

Second, the Kerala government should aim at strengthening relations with the State Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The State Division of the MEA is responsible for coordinating the subnational diplomacy of Indian federal units. Hence, an improved relationship with the State Division will help the Kerala government to organize and coordinate future diplomatic visits in a systematic way, overcoming the difficulties in center-state relations.

To conclude, one can understand that Kerala has set out to achieve the objectives of boosting its growth as well as its standing on the global stage using paradiplomacy. However, given limited resources and political constraints, the challenges that lie ahead will be numerous. Therefore, a refined approach must be adopted by the government in order to strengthen its diplomatic outreach in the years to come.

Guest Author

Biyon Sony Joseph

Biyon Sony Joseph is an MA Political Science candidate at St. Xavier's College, Kolkata. His research specialization is in India's engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Guest Author

Schwn Cyril Sabu

Schwn Cyril Sabu is a student of MSc International Relations and Diplomacy, Leiden University, Netherlands. Currently, he is working as a research assistant with the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. His research interest includes paradiplomacy, migration and radicalization.