Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has opted out of a leadership summit later this week in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. The Indian PM sent a letter of regret to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, explaining the reasons for his inability to attend. Few expected that Singh would take the extreme step of giving the meet a miss, since this would harm India’s bilateral ties with Sri Lanka.
A few days ago, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had recommended that the PM should attend the summit, but also visit the Tamil-dominated town of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka to send the unequivocal message that India is concerned about the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Pressure from politicians in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with its ethnic ties to Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, played a critical role in determining the final decision. As well as local parties, some Congress Party leaders from Tamil Nadu, including Finance Minister P Chidambaram, reportedly urged the PM to boycott the summit. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, who will now be leading the Indian delegation to the meeting, has now acknowledged that domestic politics influenced the decision after at first denying such claims.
Yet it is abundantly clear that with an eye on impending general elections, the Congress Party decided to play it safe. In an era of coalition politics, New Delhi cannot afford to ignore the perspective of states, especially those with strong parliamentary representation, in foreign policy. Two clear examples are Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. As well as this latest incident, the regional parties of Tamil Nadu compelled India to vote against Sri Lanka at the UN in 2012 and 2013.
Meanwhile, West Bengali politicians managed to block the Teesta River water-sharing agreement that was to be signed with Bangladesh in 2011. New Delhi and state governments need to find a mechanism whereby they both resolve differences on foreign policy issues. Many argue that the states have usurped functions that should be part of the central government, and that India’s ties with other countries have been harmed to accommodate partisan regional interests.
Both the center and the states can be blamed for not suggesting any feasible mechanism to resolve differences in the foreign policy. While the center blames states for going against the national interest, state governments accuse New Delhi of keeping them out of the loop. Excuses are often made stating that granting greater authority to states in foreign policy will go against the constitution. There are a number of steps which can be taken within the ambit of the law.
The MEA and state governments should have regular consultations on foreign policy issues. Such a mechanism is vital for India, since unlike in Switzerland and Germany, also federal states, there are no constitutional mechanisms where the states are consulted on foreign policy issues. Second, the central government should reduce the red tape around of trade and commerce.
This needs to be done specifically with respect to India’s regional neighborhood. Rather than the central government being involved in the nitty-gritty of business, it is time that the MEA empowered its branch secretariats, which could possibly reduce the burden on the ministry and also give a push to trade and commerce. The Chinese method of outsourcing economic diplomacy to certain provinces has proved to be extremely effective.
Finally, state governments need to be constructive stakeholders, rather than politicizing issues. They need to come up with feasible recommendations that the center can consider. Coalition governments are here to stay, and economic ties between India’s states and the outside world are likely to grow. In this context, it is absolutely vital to ensure a meaningful and sustained way for New Delhi and the states to jointly tackle foreign policy issues.