States of power

Even after the Centre has made efforts to ascertain state-level concerns, regional leaders have shown disregard for the pursuit of national goals

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the peak of Congress dominance, there were persistent accusations, both from political commentators as well as regional political leaders, that the Indian polity had become overly centralised. There was some truth to these charges. An overweening, Congress-run Central government had little patience for regional leaders or parties.

On occasions, they also dismissed state governments that they deemed to be recalcitrant at will, invoking President’s Rule on tenuous grounds.
The polity now faces an altogether different challenge — that of managing a fractious group of regional leaders and states who march to the beat of different drummers. With coalition governments at the Centre increasingly becoming the norm, states can easily ignore national goals and concerns and focus on attending to their parochial priorities. Not all of their choices are problematic, especially in the realm of domestic politics. A country as diverse as India should allow room for experimentation and the exploration of policy alternatives at state and regional levels. Indeed the pursuit of different policy strategies might yield unexpected, novel and positive outcomes. Insisting that states as diverse as Uttar Pradesh and Kerala march in lockstep is like forcing them into procrustean beds.
Accordingly, such a mixed set of initiatives should not necessarily be choked off. However, when key foreign policy interests are at stake and particular approaches to tackle them are chosen by the Centre, states should respect those choices. This, of course, does not mean that local concerns should be altogether dismissed. The Centre must consult with various constituencies, especially those whose specific interests may be involved.
What has been transpiring over the last several years, however, is a much more disturbing trend. Even after the Central government has made efforts to ascertain state-level concerns, regional leaders have shown flagrant disregard for the pursuit of national goals, or have, worse still, sought to exploit sensitive issues for short-term political and electoral gains.
At least three instances of such dissent can be adduced from the recent past. The most egregious case, of course, was Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s blatant attempt to exploit the long-standing Sir Creek maritime boundary dispute. In over a decade he had shown scant interest in the matter. However, at a particularly fraught moment in Indo-Pak relations and on the eve of Assembly election in Gujarat, he abruptly chose to dredge up the matter. Of course, Indo-Pak relations, despite the current UPA regime’s persistent efforts to woo Pakistan, were already off kilter. Mr Modi’s abrupt hardline stance on a subject under negotiation damaged an already frayed dialogue process.
A longer-term trend that underscores this tension between local concerns and national policies has been visible in Tamil Nadu. Obviously, in this case, it is the vital question of India’s relations with Sri Lanka. There is little question that the current regime of Mahinda Rajapakse has shown scant interest in addressing the legitimate interests of the minority Tamil population. Instead, since the conclusion of the brutal and sanguinary civil war in 2009, it has engaged in the most barefaced form of ethnic triumphalism. Such a strategy, quite understandably, does not play well in Tamil Nadu, the home of some 60 million Tamils. There is, nevertheless, no reason to turn this legitimate concern about the plight of co-ethnics into a partisan political issue and thereby undermine the pursuit of a unified policy towards Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, this is precisely what both the Jayalalithaa regimes have chosen to do publicly insisting and indeed grandstanding that the UPA regime do more to exert pressure on Sri Lanka, thereby setting in motion a process of ethnic outbidding for electoral ends. A more reasonable strategy would have been to quietly convey their reservations to New Delhi through appropriate channels.
The final case concerns the state of West Bengal. After many years of careful negotiations, much political posturing in Bangladesh, and important concessions from India, under the premiership of Inder Kumar Gujral, India reached an accord on the sharing of the Ganges waters with Bangladesh. On this occasion, the ruling Communist regime, under the aegis of its patriarch, Jyoti Basu, after consultations with the Central government, offered full cooperation to ensure passage and implementation of the treaty.
A similar initiative to address the sharing of the Teesta waters along with a wider package of agreements with Bangladesh ran aground two years ago thanks to the intransigence of the mercurial chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee. According to some well-placed sources, apart from the likely political costs that this water accord may have entailed, she was also piqued that the Prime Minister had not chosen to directly consult her on the matter. Instead, he had sent a high-level emissary to apprise her of the Centre’s goals and interests in the accord. Irritated with what she deemed to be a lack of Central attention, she chose to scuttle the proposed agreement through her unyielding stance on the water-sharing question.
All these three examples underscore a common theme: insular and provincial interests are undermining the pursuit of a coherent and integrated foreign policy. Obviously, the UPA regime is not blameless. Better efforts can be made to consult with both the Opposition as well as allies when regional sensibilities and concerns are at stake. That said, it is also distressing that when India is seeking to play a more substantial role in global politics, regional satraps feel at liberty to unravel the policy initiatives of the Centre and, thereby, hobble any progress towards that end.

The writer directs the Centre of American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington, and is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia

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