Famous four call the shots in foreign policy

Four satraps from the four states of Kerala, Assam, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are driving Indian foreign policy in the region, forcing an election bound UPA government to define its priorities.

Published: 18th August 2013 09:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th August 2013 09:37 AM   |  A+A-

Four states are steering the UPA 2 ship in foreign policy waters. Kerala’s Oomen  Chandy on the Italian Marines issue; West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee on the Teesta and the land boundary problem; Tamil nadu’s Jayalalithaa on the Sri Lankan Tamils and the arrest of fishermen and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP0 who is opposing the Land Boundary Bill concerning Bangladesh and illegal immigration. The Bill will be introduced in the Rajya Sabha on Monday. The much-delayed bill had to negotiate a series of obstacles firmly planted in its path by key regional players.

After it was postponed last week, it would be introduced by external affairs minister Salman Khurshid in the Upper House. But with BJP and  the AGP opposing the bill, there remains a possibility that a member could ask for a division of votes at the time of introduction.

Before this agreement was signed, foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai had personally collected signatures from all four state chief secretaries (West Bengal, Assam, Meghalya and Tripura), assenting to a new border formulation with Bangladesh. But with bad management on the political front, chief minister Mamata Banerjee first put a spanner in the proposed Teesta water sharing pact that remains in the draft, then raised objections to the signed treaty.Her doubts laid the ground for the more virulent detractors of the bill from Assam, mainly the state opposition AGP, to raise the pitch, which culminated in its two MPs attempting to snatch the bill from Khurshid’s hand during the last session. This seems to have jeopardized what the PM intends to be a major legacy of his second term—cordial relations with Bangladesh.

It’s not just the ruling coalition, it seems even the opposition must dance to the tune of its state units. In a recent blog post, BJP leader L K Advani said opposition by state units made it impossible for him to support the bill that would have finally implemented the 1971 Indira-Mujib pact, albeit in a modified manner.

While Banerjee’s so-called veto has been cited several times as the encroachment of domestic politics in the centre’s monopoly on foreign policy, she has certainly not been the only one to do so. The regional parties in South India too have time and again used political pressure to get their way.

Competitive statements by AIADMK and DMK in the past two years have led to increased pressure on India to take a hard-line stance on the anti-Sri Lanka statement in United Nations Human Rights Council. This year, the government was forced to try to introduce last minute amendments in the US-sponsored resolution to pacify allies.

Tamil Nadu’s chief minister J Jayalalithaa, too, sends highly-publicized missives to New Delhi at regular intervals, which further cements the perception that the Centre only reacts under pressure from the regional powerhouses. For instance, the summoning of the Sri Lankan high commissioner on August 7 was seen as a reaction to the Jayalalitha’s letter to the prime minister a day before. With Sri Lanka formally inviting PM Manmohan Singh to attend the Commonwealth heads of government meet in Colombo, the final decision will, of course, factor in the regional response especially in an election year.

Another crisis in which a state government played a key role was the Italian marines episode, where the timing of the crisis—bypoll was imminent—gave the Kerala government enormous leverage. It took the Supreme Court’s intervention to take away the case from the state’s purview and place it under the Centre.

While other foreign policy issues may not be as emotional, most leaders of neighbouring countries ensure that they meet at least one state administration during any official trip to India. For example, any leader from Nepal would visit the state capitals during their Indian sojourns—whether Uttar Pradesh or Bihar—besides a visit to the Delhi durbar.


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