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Envisioning a decentralised foreign policy regime in India

By Devika Bedi 

The recent five-day visit of the Sharjah ruler, Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi to Kerala on Sunday, September 24th raised important questions on whether states should and could participate in influencing the foreign policy of the nation or for their own mutual benefits.

India’s foreign policy outlook

Due to our advantageous geopolitical location, Indian foreign policy has been under constant transformation. Our pre-colonial foreign engagements were moderated by third-party colonisers but post-colonial India’s external affairs philosophy was economically protectionist and nationalist. We remained politically neutral, though. After participating in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), we have maintained that approach even now. Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi’s visit to the state of Kerala is not the first time a foreign delegation has visited an Indian state other than New Delhi and will certainly not be the last. It may be, however, a landmark occasion when a serious question of whether individual state administrations should possess decision making powers in matters of international relations is proposed. “Team India shall not be limited to the Prime Minister-led team in Delhi, but will also include Chief Ministers and other functionaries as equal partners, ” said Prime Minister Mr Modi in his BJP manifesto. It is clear that he supports states independently sharing his idea of competitive federalism.

Al-Qasimi’s visit

Al-Qasimi on his visit was received at the Cochin International Airport by Ernakulam District Collector K. Mohammed Y. Safirulla and other senior officials. Under the general amnesty, the ruler announced the release of 149 Indian prisoners in Sharjah as they had completed a term of 3 years. He went on to strike possibilities of them remaining in Sharjah at their will and take up jobs to survive, thereby negating a hardpressed need to deport them to India. The decision was made after the Kerala Chief Minister Shri Pinari Vijayan requested for the release of prisoners who had completed 3 years of jail term in Sharjah.  “The request I made was to release those people in jail. But why should they be returned, they will be allowed to live there, I will give them jobs, was the response of Sheikh Sultan,” Mr Vijayan said. In response, the Sharjah ruler elaborated: “There are not just people from Kerala or India in jails. We will release all nationals who have completed three years in jail in such cases. And why should they go back home, they will be allowed to continue to work there itself.”

A rising trend

In past few years, state linkages to foreign parties have increased. Mr Modi is an expert at using international players while handling pre-election rhetoric, post-election glorification. Countries like USA and China are popular for encouraging their states to function independently while doing international business. Surprisingly these countries pursue very different economic models and India finds itself at the crossroads of NAM yet again. Our concurrent list runs on ethos where uniformity is desirable but not essential. It is noteworthy to reflect on the possibilities of how states like Kashmir, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu could have performed, had there been a constructive mechanism and procedure under which states could employ diplomatic relations with countries across the border. There exist pros and cons of the same. To maintain national identity and security, an upper hand of the centre must loom over states to prevent loss of sovereignty and military muscle.

Key considerations for states

Transparency between the union and states on matters of foreign policy and strategy, trust between state and union by ensuring mutual benefits, an advisory board in both the union and the state to ensure smooth flow of dialogue, infrastructure establishment, employment of inclusively generated nature are certain steps that can be taken. This will prevent conflict of interest and procedures that different states may follow. There are various economic benefits as well. Considering uniform import and export policies nationally but varying costs at an intra-state level, courtesy GST, the foreign players will look for best alternatives to indulge in trade and commerce depending on which state gives them the best business deal. This will result in the industrial growth of each state and the power of self-regulation at each level. This may also prove to be the start of a decentralised foreign policy regime which might prove to be comprehensively reformatory.


Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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