The Growing Power of States in India’s Foreign Policy

In: International Negotiation
View More View Less
  • 1 Gargi College, University of Delhi, Siri Fort, New Delhi, Delhi 110049,
  • | 2 Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi,
Full Access

This study examines the role of sub-national diplomacy in India with respect to four neighboring countries – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China – and assesses the nature and consequences of such interactions for immediate policy shifts and in wider institutional terms. Except for five states – Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Telengana – all other states in India have international land or maritime borders which make a study of this nature very pertinent. This study focuses on those states that have been more inclined to engage in India’s foreign and security policy making.


This study examines the role of sub-national diplomacy in India with respect to four neighboring countries – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China – and assesses the nature and consequences of such interactions for immediate policy shifts and in wider institutional terms. Except for five states – Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Telengana – all other states in India have international land or maritime borders which make a study of this nature very pertinent. This study focuses on those states that have been more inclined to engage in India’s foreign and security policy making.

In 2014, the government of India decided to create a ‘States Division’ within the Ministry of External Affairs (mea) to serve as its nodal point for outreach to the Indian states and to bring a sharper focus on states within the mea’s activities. In 2016, there were reports in the national media that the newly created South Indian state, Telangana, was considering the creation of a state-level ‘foreign ministry.’ Both of these developments are unprecedented and indicative of a newfound recognition within the country’s political class in general and foreign policy institutions in particular that it is important to mainstream the role of the sub-national units (i.e. states) in India’s foreign policy.

Provincial engagement in a country’s foreign policy making, in itself, is not something entirely new; this has been a practice in many democratic countries around the world. However, theoretical treatment of this phenomenon in the International Relations (ir) theory has been patchy. This study uses the emerging sub-national diplomacy paradigm to examine and explain the increasing prominence of states in India’s foreign policy.

This article looks at the role of sub-national diplomacy in India with respect to four neighboring countries – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China – and assesses the nature and consequences of such interactions for immediate policy shifts and in wider institutional terms. Except for five states – Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Telengana – all other states in India have international land or maritime borders which make a study of this nature very pertinent. This study focuses on those states that have been more inclined to engage in India’s foreign and security policy making.

Theoretical Context

There is growing criticism within ir theory that understanding the foreign and security policy of countries using the traditional unitary, cohesive and billiard ball assumptions of the state may not be very useful (Heywood 2011: 5). Realist and neorealist literature on diplomacy (Waltz 1986; Morgenthau 1978) assumes unitary and rational states to be the reference point when it comes to foreign policy preferences, thanks to its inherent understanding of national sovereignty as an indivisible concept.

This rigid understanding of sovereignty and state behavior began changing with the forces of globalization reshaping the global economic and political arenas. These forces have had a great deal of impact on the practices of state sovereignty. As Keohane argues (2002: 74), today “sovereignty is less a territorially defined barrier than a bargaining source for a politics characterized by complex transnational networks.” Although such ‘post-modern’ states primarily inhabit the European political space, the European model and the forces of globalization have opened up the domestic political spaces in other countries as well. The emerging debate about sub-national diplomacy needs to be understood in this context.

A study of India’s sub-national diplomatic practices gains importance from the fact that it is a traditional state with relatively rigid claims about sovereignty, unlike the ‘post-modern’ states of Europe. Major theoretical paradigms from realism to constructivism have, over the years, increasingly recognized the need to bring on board sub-national actors and activities. Neo-classical realism, an offshoot of the realist tradition, for instance, has tried to address the domestic variables that influence a state’s response to systemic pulls and pressures. According to neo-classical realism, while the state may indeed be responding to systemic pressures, its ability to do so may be influenced by domestic factors (Taliaferro, Lobell & Ripsman 2009).

This is an interesting and useful paradigm, but the problem with neoclassical theorizing is that it does not take on board the fact that autonomous domestic factors can have significant impact on the state’s foreign and security policy making as well. In other words, states’ strategic and foreign policy behavior is not a response to systemic factors alone. The emerging theoretical paradigm of sub-national diplomacy, on the other hand, is able to account for autonomous domestic factors.

Constituent units (states, provinces, and even regions) are growing more resilient in their demands to be heard in the foreign policy making process which puts them in direct contestation with the interests of the Center (i.e. central government) and necessitates their cooperation to implement foreign policy decision-making. Sub-national units often have to pressure the Center using their economic or political clout to bring their concerns to the high table of foreign and security policy.

A multiplicity of factors like the degree of democratization and federalization, the extent of socio-economic development and increasing opening of markets have come to determine the extent of the ability of sub-national entities to contest the central government’s pre-eminence in foreign policy making (Coll 2010). This phenomenon of rising sub-national assertion in foreign policy formulation has been characterized as “constituent diplomacy” (Kincaid 2003), “localizing foreign policy” (Hocking 1993), “sub-national diplomacy,” “para-diplomacy” and “multilayered diplomacy” (Hocking 1999).

Kincaid (1990: 74) prefers the term ‘constituent diplomacy’ over ‘sub-national’ or ‘para-diplomacy’ as it bypasses the need to label the international activities of constituent states as inferior, ancillary or subsidiary to that of the Center or Union. However, according to Jenkins (2003), this value neutral preference to avoid the high-low politics distinction may end up exaggerating the significance of such diplomatic initiatives.

We believe that sub-national diplomacy, conceived as the foreign policy activism of provincial actors, exists and operates in India at a level lower than national diplomacy. Hence, this article uses the term sub-national diplomacy to refer to Indian states’ attempts at influencing the central government’s foreign policy decisions, demanding federal institutional mechanisms and asserting their prominence in foreign economic and security decision-making processes.

Factors Affecting Center-state Relations in India

The constitutional distribution of power between the Center and the constituent units has traditionally defined the landscape of center-state relations in India. Though the central government has almost complete authority in foreign policy decision making, certain political and economic factors have over the years contributed towards an increasing federalization of foreign policy decision making. This section examines some of the key factors that have influenced the assertion of the states’ voice in the framing of India’s foreign policy.

Constitutional Mandate

The importance of centralized political authority gained significant traction during the British colonial rule in India, and survived even after independence in 1947. One of the major policy concerns of the Indian leadership, right after independence, was the integration and consolidation of the states within the Union of India. Prolonged bargaining and negotiation, in varying degrees, with the Indian princely states, which were given the autonomy to settle the question of their future status by the withdrawing British government, made the process cumbersome (Chandra, Mukherjee & Mukherjee 1999).

Given that the constituent states of the Indian Union did not share a cohesive sense of Indian identity historically and were administered under different legal bureaucratic frameworks, any further consolidation of state power after India gained independence required a strong Center. Despite gaining independence the centralizing structures of the colonial state apparatus were not dispensed with. A preponderance of the central government’s role in the exclusive conduct of the foreign relations of India, therefore, needs to be seen in this context.

There is an unmistakable unitary tilt in the Constitution of India adopted in November 1949. Article 1 defines India as ‘a union of states’ and the word ‘federalism’ does not even appear in the constitution. Moreover, under article 249, the Center can legislate on matters in the State’s list for the purpose of national interest for a period not exceeding one year at a time. It can also override the state legislation in case of emergency situations under articles 352 and 356. The doctrine of repugnancy privileging federal law over state law further ensures the superiority of the Union (Bakshi 2009: 224; The Constitution of India 2007: 153).

Reflecting on the nature of the Indian federation, Wheare (1953) argued that Indian constitution is ‘quasi-federal’ and establishes a unitary state with subsidiary federal provisions. Jones (1971) held that Indian federalism was a kind of ‘bargaining federalism’ based on cooperative relations between the Center and states. There is an increasing amount of bargaining happening today between them.

This quasi-federal spirit, however, falls short in the domain of foreign policy making. The Constitution of India categorically places foreign policy decision-making in the hands of the Union government. Foreign policy comprises ‘all the matters which bring the Union into relation with any foreign country.’ They were put under Article 246 in Schedule 7, List I (Union List) ensuring the pre-eminence of Center’s decisions in such matters. Provincial governments are not allowed to establish their own offices in foreign countries but regional business, political and administrative representatives can be included in the national delegation if the Center agrees. While the Ministry of External Affairs (mea) has branch secretariats in select cities like Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Guwahati, they mostly function as central government outposts.

Prominent federal institutions like the Inter-State Council (a constitutional body), National Development Council (non-constitutional and non-statutory) and Zonal Councils (statutory body), created to ensure Center-state coordination in matters affecting states, are recommendatory in nature and have remained primarily pre-occupied with domestic concerns.

The Imperatives of Border States

India also has an asymmetrical federal structure with differential administrative mechanisms to cater to the specific needs of certain states, especially the border states of the North Eastern region, and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Under schedule 6 of the Constitution of India, the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram enjoy more power for local governance than other states in the country, with the exception of J&K. Tribal representations in the District and Regional Councils in the North East enable greater autonomy with respect to the use of irrigation canals, forest management and land allocation, among others.

Since the mid-1990s, the North Eastern Regional Council has been demanding promotion of trade and transit routes in the region in collaboration with the neighboring countries (Bhattacharya 2015).

The S.P Shukla Commission, appointed by the government of India to consider Center-state coordination in the North Eastern region, submitted a report in 1997 that recommended several changes, namely establishment of consular offices by the mea in the region, invitation to Bangladesh and Myanmarese trade delegations to explore trading opportunities in the North Eastern region, establishment of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s offices or consulates to facilitate trade, holding railway and steamer exhibitions between India and Bangladesh with a strong North Eastern participation and finally the establishment of a North Eastern Development Council with a central coordination committee in Delhi as the nodal agency for Center-state coordination (Planning Commission 1997). Consequently, the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region was established in 2001 to facilitate Center-state coordination in the region and deal with socio-economic and developmental needs.

Thanks to the multiple interlinkages that exist in the South Asian region, Delhi-centric foreign policy does not bode well for a country that is so deeply connected with its neighbors. The binary distinction between national and international spaces becomes misleading in the context of many border states in India (Bhattacharya 2015).

Previously, in the 1990s, the Narasimha Rao government in New Delhi advocated the ‘Look East’ policy to boost Indian economic growth through trade with East Asia, and later ‘the Gujral doctrine’ focused on promoting good relations with the country’s neighbors to enable better engagement with the neighborhood. The incumbent Modi government at the Center, appointed in 2014, has declared a commitment towards pro-active foreign policy based on slogans such as ‘neighborhood first’ and ‘Act East’ (Raja Mohan 2015). The border states, including the North Eastern states, form a crucial fulcrum of such policies hence it becomes crucial to involve them in the planning of such policies. Given their ability to provide land access to the East Asian region, the North Eastern states have been demanding an enhanced role for themselves in the promotion of Indian economic interests through trade integration with neighboring countries.

Compulsions of Coalition Politics

The so-called ‘national consensus’ has been on a steady decline in India for some time. The signs of declining Nehruvian consensus and the ‘Congress System’ (Kothari 1964) appeared as early as in the 1967 elections, when the congress party, for the first time, could not come to power in all Indian states. It was the arrival of the coalition era along with the rise of identity politics that transformed the country’s political landscape. A proliferation of regional and caste-based parties dramatically altered the nature of the Indian state that was being transformed from a near command polity to a demand polity (Rudolph & Rudolph 2001).

With coalition governments at the Center, regional parties – many of which are based exclusively in one state and therefore represent the specific interests of their voting constituencies – gained more bargaining power and leverage (Mattoo & Jacob 2010).

Such bargaining was strikingly evident during the India-us civilian nuclear negotiations from 2005 to 2008, when the Left parties which ruled just three Indian states at the time pressured the upa government not to sign the deal. Since the Left did not withdraw its support to the coalition government in the beginning, the central government managed to keep its position ambiguous until it could muster the support of other coalition partners to clear the deal (Verghese 2014). This episode clearly demonstrated that the domestic coalition pressures and compulsions exercised significant influence on the country’s foreign policy choices. Instead of becoming a handicap, it worked to the central government’s advantage for leveraging more concessions from the us government citing domestic constraints.

Impact of Globalization on Foreign Economic Policy Making

The process of liberalization unleashed in the early 1990s has transformed the role of the Indian states in the country’s foreign economic policy, traditionally an exclusive domain of the central government. States are now no more dependent on the Center to carry out economic negotiations with external entities. Today, they are competing among themselves to attract foreign investment.

The cornerstone for sub-national economic diplomacy in India was laid when the then Chief Minister (cm) of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu reached out to the World Bank for a state-level development loan in 1997 (Kale 2014). He also managed to attract investment from it companies like Microsoft and was chosen by the mea in 2015 to lead a delegation to China with the larger objective of improving India-China bilateral relations (Maini 2015). Similar efforts by state governments have led to the rise of enhanced international economic activities in dynamic cities, like Hyderabad and Bangalore.

Mr. Narendra Modi, the cm of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, travelled to China four times and Japan twice, in order to attract investment for his state. His ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ initiative – highlighting the economic achievements and opportunities of Gujarat – became a huge success. Such campaigns are being pursued today by other states, like Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The ‘Resurgent Rajasthan Partnership Summit’ in 2015 helped negotiate direct flight connectivity between Rajasthan and Singapore (Maini 2016). Finally, Foreign Investment Promotion Boards have been established by states to work for the improvement of investment climate in their respective jurisdiction.

The increasing role of sub-national units in India’s foreign economic policy making is reflected in the fact that authorities from other countries make it a point to visit some of the high-investment destinations other than the national capital. For example, former Chinese Premier Li Peng visited Bangalore and Hyderabad, apart from Delhi and Mumbai, during his 9-day trip to India in 2001 (Cherian 2001). Similarly, in 2011, the then us Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited Chennai and Calcutta even prior to visiting Delhi (Singh 2014).

Mattoo and Jacob (2010) mention two additional factors that explain the growing clout of sub-national actors in the country’s foreign policy decision-making: the special constitutional status provided to some states (like in the case of J&K) which gives a larger role to some state leaders in country’s foreign policy making, and the political weight of a state leader which may also count in foreign policy decision-making, though indirectly. Singh (2012: 9), reflecting on the nature of foreign policy federalization in India, argues that there has been a tilt towards regionalization rather than federalization.

New Initiatives Promoting Sub-national Economic Diplomacy

To facilitate interactions between India’s regional leaders and state officials and senior officials from foreign countries, the government of India recently created a ‘States Division’ within the mea. This division facilitates the visits of state leaders to foreign countries for attracting investments and commerce deals. It has also facilitated the signing of three sister-city agreements i.e. Chennai-Chongqing, Hyderabad-Qingdao, Aurangabad-Dunhuang and a sister state agreement between Karnataka and Sichuan during pm Modi’s 2015 visit to China. Nodal officers are being appointed in states and Union Territories to coordinate with the Indian missions abroad and facilitate information exchange (Ministry of External Affairs 2016).

The States Division however does not play any role in political matters between the Center and states. Its officials are central government employees and there is no specific provision for the deputation of state representatives in this department. Their basic job is coordination and management of logistics and information exchange to facilitate better economic deals for the Indian states.

In pursuance of the ‘Look East Policy’, the ‘North Eastern Region Vision 2020’, a policy document drafted by the North Eastern Council and the Union Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region in 2008, envisaged a greater role for the North Eastern states in synergizing India’s foreign economic policy with respect to neighboring countries. It proposed facilitating border trade by removing current restrictions via Moreh, Nathu La and other entry points, unrestricted trade with neighboring countries in agricultural and meat products, assuaging the neighbors through non-security interactions, activating existing land-customs stations for secure transport and North East’s greater participation in trade with the asean countries (Ministry for Development of North Eastern Region 2008).

Despite the many initiatives to involve states in the foreign policy-making process, there continuous to be a centralizing tendency in the approach of the central government led by Prime Minister Modi. This is to be expected given the absence of clearly defined institutional mechanisms to do so. On the other hand, inflated clout of state leaders may also result in policy paralysis. Events like the fallout of the Teesta Agreement with Bangladesh during the United Progressive Alliance (upa)-ii regime (pti 2016a) or Italy vetoing India’s entry into Missile Technology Control Regime following the trial of Italian marines in Indian courts, due to pressure from Kerala, in the accidental shooting case, and Tamil Nadu’s sabotaging the India-Sri Lank bilateral relations over human rights violations have strengthened the skepticism in certain quarters in New Delhi about according more space to sub-national entities in the country’s foreign policy making process.

Strategic and Security Issues

This section examines how Indian states have managed to influence the Center’s decision-making process on strategic and security issues.

Tamil Nadu and India-Sri-Lanka Relations

The ill treatment of the Indian-origin Tamil population in Sri Lanka with the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and the consequent Tamil migration to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has been a major electoral concern in Tamil Nadu since the 1970s. Sri Lankan affairs and in particular India’s relations with the Sri Lanka were major political issues for Tamil Nadu-based political parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (dmk) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (aiadmk).

The Indian state of Tamil Nadu provided economic, logistical and military support to the ltte in its formative years. After the failure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s and the shocking assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the ltte in 1991, India adopted a non-interventionist policy in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and tried to sideline the concerns of regional Tamil parties in its foreign policy decision-making.

Indian disenchantment also had a geo-strategic angle. With China and Pakistan courting Colombo for strategic partnerships, New Delhi tried not to be influenced by the pressure from Tamil Nadu to retain its influence with Colombo. From 2007 onwards, it tacitly supported the Sri Lankan government’s military campaign against the ltte (Destradi 2012). Given the growing antagonism in Tamil Nadu about Sri Lanka’s violent crackdown on ltte, India refused to support Sri Lanka publicly in 2006 in its war against the ltte but secretly provided it with arms and ammunition (Gokhale 2014).

Due to growing domestic pressure, however, New Delhi could not move beyond such clandestine supply of military hardware. India has traditionally followed the practice of non-intervention in the sovereign affairs of other countries and treaded very cautiously on the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect.’ A belief in the supremacy of the concept of state sovereignty underlines its measured responses to international episodes of mass atrocities and human rights violations (Jaganathan & Kurtz 2014).

Consistent with this stand, it voted against the motion in the United Nations Human Right Council (unhrc) in 2009, which demanded an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan government during its fight against the ltte. The dmk-led state government in Tamil Nadu was supported by the Congress party and so the former could not compel the Central government to reverse its support to Sri Lanka (Destradi 2012). At the same time, although dmk was a coalition partner at the Center with its 16 seats, the external support of the Left kept the central government afloat.

A us-supported unhrc resolution in 2012 accused Sri Lanka of war crimes against its minority Tamil population during the country’s civil war (United Nations General Assembly 2012). This time, however, an overwhelming Tamil resentment forced the Center to vote against Sri Lanka in a significant departure from its traditional, sovereignty-based rejection of any kind of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. India also deviated from its traditional stand of not voting on country-specific resolutions (pti 2012a). In order to control the damage to bilateral relations, however, India proposed two modifications in the resolution and thereby diluted its criticism, by proposing the concurrence of the Sri Lankan government before international inspection could be done.

Overall, New Delhi managed to control the damage to bilateral relations while preserving the central government in power, though the wisdom behind this move was widely questioned within the country’s strategic community. In any case, India’s support to the Sri Lankan government also failed to convince or coerce the latter to honor its promise of political rehabilitation of Tamil civilians.

Yet another unhrc resolution in 2013 pushed the central government into a tight corner. Killing of the teenaged son of ltte leader Prabhakaran by the Sri Lankan forces haunted the public imagination and the aiadmk government in Tamil Nadu passed a resolution in the state assembly urging New Dehli to stop treating Sri Lanka as a friendly country (pti 2013).The dmk this time was not part of the state government but had 18 seats in the upa coalition government at the national level which was crucial for the central government’s political survival, especially given its deteriorating relations with the tmc, another coalition partner. The pressure from Tamil Nadu, therefore, affected New Delhi’s vote in the unhrc.

In 2013, Tamil Nadu government banned Sri Lankan cricket players from playing in the Indian Premier League matches in Tamil Nadu, and forced the central government to shift the training of members of the Sri Lankan air force from the state. They also pressured the Center to not encourage the Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa’s visit to India (The Hindu 2013). Moreover, facing Tamil resentment, Prime Minister Singh skipped the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (chogm) and sent his External Affairs Minister instead in protest against Sri Lanka’s half-hearted efforts in investigating war crimes (New Delhi Bureau 2013). These instances led to an apparent downturn in India-Sri Lanka relations and aggravated Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China and Pakistan, to India’s strategic disadvantage (Kumar 2014).

By 2014, things had become better for New Delhi. dmk had already withdrawn its support from the coalition at the Center and senior Congress leaders from Tamil Nadu decided not to contest the state elections easing Congress Party’s electoral worries (Prabhu & Stalin 2014). With reduced focus on state elections, the Union government was relatively autonomous from the compulsions of coalition politics and Tamil ‘populist’ demands. While there was nothing much to gain domestically, India could gain by improving relations with Sri Lanka (Bagchi 2014) and this led to India’s abstention at the unhrc vote against Sri Lanka in 2014. Appreciating India’s stand, Sri Lanka announced the immediate release of all Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody as a goodwill gesture (Srinivasan 2014).

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) has majority in the current parliament, the Center is likely to demonstrate less patience for a Tamil regional political issue, as the support of Tamil parties is no longer crucial for the regime’s survival. Despite opposition from the Tamil Nadu-based Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (mdmk), a coalition partner of nda (National Democratic Alliance, the bjp-led coalition in New Delhi),3 Modi invited the Sri Lankan President to participate in his swearing-in ceremony (Madan 2014).

In conclusion, we could argue that the inability of the central government to ignore major Tamil parties enabled them to influence the foreign policy of India with respect to Sri Lanka. While the Tamil Nadu state assembly did not negotiate with the Sri Lankan government regarding Sri Lankan Tamils and their rights, it passed resolutions with scathing criticism against the Sri Lankan government. Alienating Sri Lanka was considered strategically inimical to Indian interests given China’s increasing presence in the region. But Tamil antagonism did force the politically vulnerable Center to alter its first preference in many situations and suffer the opposition charge of ‘policy paralyses’ under the United Progressive Alliance (upa) regime (Mishra & Miklian 2016). On occasions, however, both the India-us civilian nuclear deal and India’s voting against Sri Lanka in unhrc did provide some leverage to the Center to exert concessions from its external counterparts. India managed to project itself as a willing partner, adeptly playing the ‘two-level game’ (Putnam 1988), constrained by domestic coalition partners that were crucial for regime’s survival.

West Bengal and the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (lba)

India-Bangladesh border disputes arose out of the border demarcation between the two countries in 1972 when Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan. The hasty and unfinished boundary making process led to the existence of enclaves, counter-enclaves and adverse possessions of each other’s territory. The Land Boundary Agreement was first signed between India and Bangladesh in 1974, but it could not be ratified in India as the government could not muster enough support for the passage of the mandatory constitutional amendment to implement the agreement. It was only after Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in 2010 that the upa government under Manmohan Singh made efforts to revive the agreement.

When the lba bill proposing the transfer of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India was introduced in the Parliament in 2011, it was opposed by the then principal opposition party, bjp, and some regional parties like Assam Gana Parishad (agp) and tmc. Furthermore, overwhelming opposition by the mps from West Bengal effectively stalled the bill.

Since the tmc, whose home state West Bengal was a major stakeholder in the land swap deal, was a major coalition partner in the Central government in New Delhi, the central government was unable to pursue the deal in the face of severe opposition from the state. In other words, failed negotiations between the Center and the state governments sabotaged an important foreign policy deal with Bangladesh from seeing the light of the day during the second term of the Manmohan Singh-led upa regime.

When the nda government came to power in 2014, bjp realized the overwhelming importance of the deal and sought to revive it. The bjp members in Assam, however, argued against the inclusion of Assamese territory in the lba as it could adversely affect their chances of victory in the upcoming elections if they were perceived as switching sides and giving away their land to Bangladesh (The Hindu 2015). As a result, the new draft of the lba included land from the three Indian states of West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura, but not Assam. For similar political reasons, the ruling Congress Party in Assam, at this juncture, criticized the bjp for supporting the lba. However, in a letter to the Prime Minister, Assam’s Congress cm Tarun Gogoi urged him to rise above narrow political considerations and include Assam in the lba. He also added that construction of border fencing could help prevent illegal migration and smuggling through the porus border (Haider & Joshua 2015). Eventually, enclaves in Assam were included in the final deal.

In a dramatic reversal of policy, tmc also agreed to support the lba in the spirit of cooperative federalism. This change was a result of the negotiations between Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee and Bangaldesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, two Bengali speaking politicians from two different countries, on a matter that is constitutionally a prerogative of the central governments in New Delhi and Dhaka. A number of delegations from Dhaka and New Delhi visited Banerjee to convince her to cooperate in the promotion of friendly relations between India and Bangladesh (Bagchi 2015).

Upon the passage of the lba in the Indian parliament, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also thanked Tripura cm Manik Sarkar for his support. Sarkar in turn endorsed the growing harmony between India and Bangladesh and hoped that Tripura-Bangladesh relations would be further consolidated. He informed her of the ongoing construction of a ‘friendship park’ at Chottakhola in the South Tripura district to commemorate the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war (pti 2015a). He further extended her an invitation to visit Tripura for the inauguration of the park, which was reciprocated by Sheikh Hasina who extended an invitation to him to visit Bangladesh. Over the years, Tripura has proposed and helped implement many of the proposals that aim at enhancing transit facilities along Tripura-Bangladesh border. pm Modi also reportedly ‘thanked Sarkar for his help’ (ians 2015).

Border Imperatives of the North Eastern States

India’s North Eastern states gain significance because of their prominent geo-strategic location. The region is connected to the mainland by a so-called ‘chicken’s neck corridor’ and shares 96% of its borders with other countries (North East Region Vision Report 2020). Geographical distance from the mainland, distinct socio-cultural settings, and historical relations between co-ethnic populations across the international borders make them prominent from a foreign policy perspective as well.

Precarious geo-strategic location of the states in the northeast of India makes the domestic politics and economy of this region vulnerable to the unstable security environment in the South Asian neighborhood. For a long time, infrastructural activities were not promoted in these areas owing to the suspicion that it would facilitate an easy entry for the enemy forces in the event of hostilities. With increased emphasis on the promotion of international trade and cooperation, many proposals for developing infrastructural facilities have now been put forward. Jacob (2011) attributes this renewed interest and enthusiasm towards border security infrastructure development to the following reasons:

  1. India is making up for the long-standing policy of keeping its border areas underdeveloped in an effort to prevent easy Chinese access in the event of another conflict.

  2. Infrastructure development is a natural corollary of India’s rapid economic growth and is part of development all around the country.

  3. The increasing security infrastructure and troop presence are, most likely, Indian reactions to China’s rapid military modernization and active development of security infrastructure in Tibet along the international border with India.

However, local opposition to land acquisition and construction has stalled infrastructure projects such as hydro-electric dams. In states like Arunachal Pradesh, there is an ardent desire to preserve their natural and cultural environment, often leading to resistance movements against Center-led developmental projects (Jacob 2014). This provincial opposition may not over-rule the Center’s security policies, but could potentially be instrumental in delaying their implementation. Similarly, the Center’s efforts at fencing the borders along Meghalaya’s border have also been opposed by the population in the hilly regions of the state. Moreover, land acquisition for national projects has been a very sensitive issue in the region.

On the other hand, the need for maintaining law and order pushed Tripura to conduct trans-border anti-insurgency operations. Over the years, it managed to create an unofficial, covert but very effective commando unit, which conducted trans-border attacks on insurgent bases and safe houses inside Bangladesh based on information provided by surrendered militants and Bangladeshi mafias (Bhaumik 2014b).The state government under Manik Sarkar was warned by the central government’s intelligence agencies of possible retaliation from the Bangladesh government, but Sarkar managed to not only avoid potential Bangladeshi retaliation but also overcome the overcautious attitude of New Delhi (Bhaumik 2012). The Sheikh Hasina government, which came to power in Bangladesh in 2009, also cracked down on insurgent groups in its territory and handed over the rebel leaders to Tripura police. Subsequently, the Tripura government revoked the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 2015 citing the decline in insurgency. It ended the extra-ordinary power of the central military forces in Tripura, something the state government had demanded for a long time.

With the growing obfuscation of differences between internal and external security threats, especially in the border regions infested with insurgency related problems, security issues for the Center often become law and order problems for these states, necessitating a coordinated approach. For India’s security policies in the northeast to be effective, not only is intra-regional cooperation with neighbors required but also sub-national cooperation. While national security is New Delhi’s exclusive domain, negotiations with neighbors and border-states are unavoidable while pursuing those national security interests.

States and India’s Fight Against Terror

Although located in a troubled geopolitical neighborhood, India still does not have a national counter-terrorism policy. The lack of consensus among the states is one of the major reasons for it. The Chief Ministers’ Conferences convened during the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (nda) and upa-i governments, to approve the establishment of a federal investigative agency with an all-India mandate failed owing to the reluctance of states (Singh 2012).

The Central Bureau of Investigation (cbi) requires states’ permission to operate in their jurisdiction. The Mumbai terror attack in November 2008, however, prompted the passage of the National investigation Agency (nia) bill in the Parliament. Center’s proposal for the establishment of the National Counter-Terrorism Center in 2012 did not witness similar demonstration of federal spirit by the states (Chari 2012). Some states objected to its present form while others proposed its establishment through a parliamentary act ensuring states’ concurrence. Mostly non-Congress state governments led by Narendra Modi (Gujarat, bjp), Naveen Patnaik (Odisha, Biju Janata Dal), Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal, tmc), Jayalalitha (Tamil Nadu, aiadmk), Chandrababu Naidu (AndhraPradesh tdp) among others, protested the move as a violation of the federal structure of the constitution and registered their apprehensions of its misuse by the Center against non-confirming state governments (et Bureau 2012).

It is noteworthy that since ‘terrorism’ is not mentioned in any of the lists of the Constitution of India, it becomes part of the residuary list and therefore comes under the Center’s mandate (Singh 2012). Center could brush aside the state’s concern given the linkage that exists between the external and internal security issues. The creation of an all India institution through a parliamentary act requires a two-third majority of the present and voting in the upper house of the Indian Parliament, which makes a certain amount of Center-state consensus unavoidable. None of the union governments could muster a majority in the upper house recently.

The growing importance of sub-national units and regional parties acts as a major constraint in the formulation and implementation of such policies. In the most recent Inter-State Council meeting in 2016, West Bengal cautioned the Center against the use of counter-terrorism as excuse for intervening in the internal affairs of the state (Ghanekar & Dutta 2016).

Political Economy Issues

Indian states have the power to engage in international trade and agreements, but the Center can veto it. With the adoption of economic reforms, however, the interventionist role of the Center has now become a regulatory one. Center’s voluntary ceding of some of its elaborate powers has been a major development, primarily as a result of economic globalization and the opening of the Indian economy. This section looks at instances of pro-active economic diplomacy by the Indian states.

Trade along the Western and Eastern Borders

The India-Pakistan trade has at best been minimal owing to their adversarial bilateral relationship. However, the revival of relations between the Indian and Pakistani Punjabs over a decade ago had begun a slew of economic and cultural linkages between the two countries, although they did not last very long. Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal who had accompanied the then Prime Minister of India to Lahore in 1999 engaged in discussions with his Pakistani counterpart and took a number of decisions to re-energize the historical linkages between the two Punjabs.

The visit was followed by cultural interactions for over a year, which helped in the revival of the historical sense of belongingness and cultural links often termed as ‘Punjabiyat’ across the border. The process was accelerated in 2004 by the then cm of Indian Punjab, Amarindar Singh, who announced the setting up of a World Punjabi Center at Patiala. This was followed by his 2005 visit to Pakistani Punjab again accompanied by businessmen and members of the Chamber of Commerce. Positively responding to these developments, in 2005, Pakistan’s president Parvez Musharraf announced the release of 83 civilian prisoners belonging to Indian Punjab who had completed their prison term in his country (Reddy 2005).

In view of the economic cooperation between the two Punjabs and the Indo-Pakistani Peace Process, India and Pakistan started the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus service in 2006. This rapprochement received a set-back due to the Mumbai terror attack in 2008. However, the continued efforts of the cms of the two Punjabs resulted in the inauguration of the Integrated Check-Post at Attari in April 2012. It was followed by cultural exchanges and agreements on promoting culture, education and science in the following years.

In November 2012, Indian Punjab’s Deputy Chief Minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal, met his Pakistani counterpart and a Pakistan-India business roundtable was organized in Lahore. It led to the proposal of a joint business council with ten members from each side in order to strengthen the business climate between the two states (Maini 2012b). Badal, during his Pakistan visit in 2012, discussed the idea of selling energy from the Indian Punjab to Pakistan. The Center facilitated the initiative, and a senior Indian official forwarded the proposal for selling 500 mw of power to energy deficient Pakistan, which was only quick to accept the proposal (Maini 2013).

There are similar cultural ties between Rajasthan in India and Sindh in Pakistan, but they remain unrealized. While the Central government under Manmohan Singh was willing to promote cross border trade with Pakistan, the Rajasthan state government led by bjp did not show interest in opening up the Munabao-Khokhrapar land route, fearing Sindhi migration from across the border (Maini 2014a).

The state of Gujarat has also not shown much enthusiasm for linking trade routes with Pakistan. During the Chief Ministership of Narendra Modi, a delegation from the Karachi Chamber of Commerce visited Gujarat in 2011 and urged him to help ease the visa regime and communications restrictions, and extended him an invitation to visit Pakistan. While Modi talked about potential energy and trade cooperation between Sindh and Gujarat, he did not visit Pakistan to take the discussion further (Phadnis 2011).

In 2012, he preemptively sabotaged the Indo-Pakistan negotiations over Sir Creek, a disputed water body on the Gujarat-Sindh border. He alleged that the upa government was handing over Sir Creek to Pakistan, which would jeopardize the security and pride of the nation (pti 2012). His letter to the central government also emphasized that Gujarat was not consulted at any point (Jacob 2016).

At the foundation ceremony of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in 2014, Modi, now pm, urged the state governments to become more active in the economic domain. He said, “We at the Center have to team up with the State governments for export promotion and the states should also work hard individually to help drive exports” (pti 2014). He also discussed the establishment of export promotion councils in the state. This was repeated in his speech at the brics meeting where he spoke about the need for greater interactions at the provincial and city level, a practice followed by many countries around the world (Maini, 2014b). During his visit to China in 2015, the Chief Ministers of Gujarat and Maharashtra accompanied him for the provincial leaders’ forum (Haider 2015).

Trade along the North Eastern Border

Increased economic transaction in the border states would require trans-border connectivity in these states which demand negotiations and synergies at multiple levels: between countries, between the Center and the states and among states themselves. This is further complicated by the trans-national and inter-provincial nature of security threats.

The North Eastern region is not a monolith and there are varying state responses to the developmental and security projects proposed by the Center. For example, illegal migration in Assam, which impacts the socio-economic and demographic composition of the state, has created a great deal of resentment among the local population. To resolve this, the state government has been asking the central government to erect a fool-proof fence on the India-Bangladesh border. The central government often turned a blind eye to the concerns of the state, keeping in mind sensitive Indo-Bangladesh relations and Muslim vote bank in the region, especially during Congress Party’s rule in New Delhi.

On the other hand, the left government in Tripura has fostered close relations with neighboring Bangladesh despite the problems of illegal migration. It urged the central government to push forward the proposal of selling electricity to Bangladesh through its ongc Tripura Power Company at Palatana over and above the supplies given by the West Bengal power plant. The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh cooperated and allowed the transport of heavy equipment for the project through the ports of Chittagong and Asuganj. It also allowed the passage of food-grains through the same route without charging Tripura for it (Bhaumik 2014a). While consent from the Center was crucial, it was Tripura’s own pro-active diplomacy with both New Delhi and Dhaka that made the difference. More importantly, India’s trade with China’s western provinces can increase radically if such trade can be conducted through the northeast of India.

Water Sharing Issues between India and Bangladesh

Water is a subject devoted to the states in the Constitution of India, but it is subject to the provisions of entry 56 of list I, which enables supremacy of the central legislation if the matter is one of public interest. Water sharing agreements with other countries can be brought about by the Center without requiring a constitutional amendment. However, the Center has never used its legislative powers under entry 56 even to resolve the inter-state water disputes. Despite the Union’s privileged position in foreign affairs, the new India-Bangladesh agreement on sharing water from the Teesta River has not materialized yet, predominantly because of objections from the West Bengal government.

The Teesta River agreement of 1982 had to be revised in the wake of the construction of dams by India at Gazaldoba, Phulabri and Jolpaiguri, which reduced the availability of water to Bangladesh, on account of its lower-riparian location.

Mamata Banerjee, the current cm of West Bengal has been reluctant to support the revision of Teesta water-sharing agreement arguing that it would have adverse implications for West Bengal. She has been urging the Center to look into the issue of over-withdrawal of Teesta water in Sikkim. Without addressing which any more water-sharing with Bangladesh would, she claims, imply substantial costs for the farmers of West Bengal (Mirchandani 2016).

When the terms of the deal were being negotiated between India and Bangladesh, Prime Minister Singh was under the impression that he had Mamata Banerjee’s concurrence for the accord. Mamata Banerjee was a minister in his cabinet for over three months, prior to her election as West Bengal’s cm. It is unlikely that she was unaware of the terms of the deal. With the pro-India Sheikh Hasina government in office in Bangladesh since 2009, it was an opportunity for India to settle the contentious irritants in bilateral relations with Bangladesh and build a fruitful relationship. However, Mamata Bannerjee walked out of the delegation to Bangladesh that included the Prime Minster and the Chief Ministers of the border states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram. She accused the Center of compromising the interests of West Bengal. Later, during a visit to Bangladesh, India’s foreign minister admitted that the Teesta accord was a sensitive issue and ‘in accordance with the traditions of consensual decision-making in India’s democratic polity, internal consultations are on among stakeholders’ (Roche 2012).

The 38th meeting of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission was cancelled at the last moment as West Bengal’s representatives did not attend the meeting (Gupta 2013). Replying to a question, the new external Affairs minister in the current nda government, Sushma Swaraj said in 2016:

There are three parties in this. India, Bangladesh, West Bengal government. There were assembly elections in West Bengal. Now that elections are over and Mamata Banerjee is back as chief minister, the federal Indian government will begin talks with Mamata government to finalize the Teesta water sharing treaty (Daily Star 2016).

Even Bangladesh acknowledged West Bengal’s centrality in the Teesta water sharing issue, and when Mamata Banerjee set up a committee under the river-expert Kalyan Rudra to study the implications of the treaty, it reached out to her by sending its Foreign Minister Dipu Moni to meet her in November 2011. Bangladesh continues to court Banerjee to persuade her to accept the treaty. In June 2016, its High Commissioner in India visited her in Kolkata to discuss the treaty. New Delhi has not raised any objections to a foreign government engaging in direct diplomatic negotiations with a state government although it can legally do so. If anything, it has only encouraged it.


States in India, especially those with international borders, are emerging as significant players in the conduct of India’s foreign, economic and strategic policy. However, given the absence of any legal and constitutional basis for this role, contingent factors such as coalition structures tend to influence the ability of the sub-national actors to impact policy outcomes. We would like to conclude this discussion with the following observations.

First, states primarily look for participation in those foreign policy sectors which affect them directly, politically or economically, making sub-national diplomacy essentially sporadic, ad-hoc, exclusive and mostly reactionary. The Center seems to be keen on keeping it that way so that it does not have to deal with the combined strength of the states on national issues. There has not been an emphasis on developing an institutional approach to enable states to be stakeholders in the process of foreign policy making in the country.

The term ‘sub-national diplomacy,’ therefore, describes the states’ role in India’s foreign policy making process more accurately than ‘constituent diplomacy.’ However, the lack of institutional structures also leads to a situation where petty politics and populist demands frustrate foreign policy making rather than leading to optimal decision making.

Second, sub-national diplomacy in India even in the relatively unconstrained domain of foreign economic policy making is not autonomous. The Center still holds the veto and sub-national units have no constitutional and juridical remedy to bypass it. Rules of the game have been altered and made flexible but ultimately the Center does exercise the overarching sovereign guarantor role. This does not, however, dispute the fact that states’ role is steadily growing in the country’s foreign economic decision-making. More so, the Center often views the economic activism by states as a positive trend as it brings in more fdi and foreign economic collaboration.

Third, certain sub-national governments have been more vocal than others. States like West Bengal and Tripura have meticulously carved out a niche for themselves wherein they become significant variables in the country’s relations with specific foreign countries. Neighboring countries often have to engage in dialogue with these sub-national entities to facilitate policy agreements over and above the concurrence of India’s national government.

However, not all constituent states have similar capability to influence decisions. Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, comparatively large states holding substantial number of seats in the parliament, could exert more pressure on the Center than other states. The North Eastern states, except Assam, hold fewer seats in the national Parliament and therefore suffer from a disadvantage while bargaining with the Center.

Fourth, the foregoing description shows that coalition dynamics in New Delhi has been a decisive factor in influencing security and foreign policy decisions of the Indian government. This influence is contingent upon the dynamics between the coalition structure of the central government and the demands of the regional parties who participate in the coalition government.

Finally, the current central government, under Prime Minister Modi, is keen to involve states in the country’s external policy but only in the economic and trade fields, not in the hard strategic and security areas. More importantly, the ability of states to negotiate with the current central government is almost negligible due to the fact that the ruling party in New Delhi has a majority and it does not depend on smaller regional parties for its political survival. This has resulted in the inability of its coalition partners to influence key foreign or security policy decisions of the central government.

3 mdmk is a Tamil regional party which in the past has supported a lift on the ban on the ltte and championed for Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, both of which the bjp has opposed.


Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 762 212 12
Full Text Views 261 18 0
PDF Views & Downloads 88 49 0