Any discussion on federalism in India inevitably becomes one of encroachment of the Union government on the constitutional powers of the state governments. While it is true that the Union government has over the years encroached in many ways on subjects best handled by state governments, that is only one part of the story. States have, over the years, increased their footprint in some unlikely areas even though, strictly speaking, the constitutional scheme does not envisage a role for them. One of them is foreign policy.
Under the Constitution, foreign relations and diplomatic representation are entries in List I of the Seventh Schedule and therefore wholly within the Union government’s law making and executive power. One could therefore ask the obvious conclusion — how could states possibly play a role in foreign policy then?
The answer becomes clear when one looks at India’s immediate neighbourhood. Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of the British Indian provinces Punjab and Bengal for much longer than they have been independent countries. For centuries before that, these regions had their own distinctive histories and culture, none of which gets erased simply because there’s an international border running through them now.
Likewise, Ladakh and Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, and Nepal and UP/Bihar have historical ties that go back centuries before the creation of modern nation states and the respective Indian states. Geography matters in another way as well. India is the upper riparian state for both Pakistan and Bangladesh and the rivers that flow into these countries are significant lifelines in Indian states and territories. Witness Mamata Bannerjee’s insistence on protecting the interests of West Bengal first in the context of Bangladesh’s attempt to build a dam across the Padma.
Post independence migration has created a new and large diaspora of Indians in countries around the world, with some states contributing vastly more than others. Think of Malayalis in the Persian Gulf states, Gujaratis in the United States, Punjabis in Canada, among others. They continue to maintain close links with their communities in their respective states in India, apart from also sending large amounts of remittances that have shaped local economies.
These links are promoted and nurtured by the state governments as well. The Karnataka government has, in the past, funded the Association of Kannada Kootas of America ostensibly for their cultural events but it has seen the participation of the Chief Ministers and cabinet ministers of the state. Likewise Andhra Pradesh and the Telugu Associations of North America.
This is not just an Indian phenomenon. Back in the 1980s, it was observed that more than 1,000 local and state governments in the United States were also involved in one way or the other in foreign affairs. The same was evident in Australia as well. These countries, like India, are federal polities where foreign affairs is supposed to be entirely with the central government but where states have nonetheless played an important role in the matter. The phenomenon even has a term of its own (coined by John Kincaid) in international relations - paradiplomacy.
In the last decade there have been calls by foreign policy experts for the Union government to acknowledge the role of states and find ways to institutionalise the states’ role in foreign policy. Papers by Happymon Joseph and Harsh V Pant have discussed the implications from a foreign policy and institutional perspective.
No one is suggesting that states be free to pursue independent foreign policies of their own, separate from or hostile to those of the Union government. However, the point that is being made is that India’s foreign affairs may be better conducted taking the states’ role seriously, seeing them not just as “stakeholders” but active enablers of India’s foreign policy goals.
Diplomacy is no longer just about government to government contact. It is accompanied by a range of cultural, economic, and societal exchanges between the peoples of those countries also. Good foreign policy requires not only an understanding of a foreign government and its strategies, but also of the social, political and economic situation of the foreign country itself. Here’s where engaging state governments in foreign affairs can be a “force multiplier” for India.
One suggestion has been made by Nitin Pai of Takshashila back in 2013 - of the creation of “Subcontinental Relations Council” featuring the Prime Minister, External Affairs Minister and the Chief Ministers of border states. The history of such centre-state bodies is mixed at best — the Inter-State Council is non-functional, and the GST Council which worked well initially is showing signs of coming apart under the stress of centre-state and party politics. However, it is an idea worth considering with the caveat that, as the examples I’ve cited above show, it’s not just border states like Punjab, Bengal, et al who have a role in foreign policy but all states irrespective of their location on the border. This could allow for better coordination between the Union and states and learning from each state.
I would, however, propose a more radical solution — allowing the states to staff embassies around the world. One of the common complaints one hears in the context of India’s foreign policies is that the Indian government is woefully understaffed when it comes to the questions of staffing embassies with subject matter experts. This is a reflection of the relatively small size of the Indian Foreign Service but also perhaps the narrow understanding of what foreign affairs constitutes.
One way to address this could be to ask state governments to depute officers and personnel who have had experience in engaging with the people in those countries to staff the community affairs and economic wings in the embassies. Such personnel could be positioned in the embassy for limited tenures to ensure that they can bring their skills and experience to the working of the embassy and take back the knowledge to the state as well.
One of the unintended consequences of this move might be to move the discussion on India’s federalism out of purely the constitutional and political sphere. The subjects listed out in the Schedules in the Seventh Schedule serve an important purpose in the context of lawmaking and governance, but they are not meant to be absolute domains for either the state or the Union. Debates on federalism in India should not be limited simply to conflicts over the encroachment of the Union on state constitutional powers. Rather, federalism can also inform the way the Union government seeks to achieve its foreign policy goals in the larger interest of the nation.
Alok Prasanna Kumar is Co-Founder and Lead, Vidhi Karnataka. His areas of research include judicial reforms, Constitutional law, urban development, and law and technology. Views expressed are the author’s own.