How many people remember the late Prof M.D. Nanjundaswamy, founder of the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS) and espouser of the farmers’ cause? In the latter half of the 1990s he was painted as villain by the government and the media for his opposition to India’s accession to the WTO and for opposing the entry of multinationals into the food business.

Nothing came of his protests. But he did succeed in starting a new trend, a trend that has gathered pace in the last three years. This trend lay in his implicit demand which, thanks to N. Modi, M. Banerjee and M. Karunanidhi, has now become explicit.

The demand is understandable yet impossible. Impossible, because the Constitution makes foreign relations a Central subject; understandable, because the States bear the brunt of these decisions.

Modi’s demand

For several years, the issue did not re-surface. Then, in 2010, Narendra Modi, just before the Cancun Summit on the environment, asked “the Prime Minister to involve all Chief Ministers in defining the country’s commitments for climate change before submitting the papers for international negotiations.” (The Hindu, December 7).

He also said in his letter to the PM that “India's stand on domestic climate actions, as reported from the summit, was contrary to the assurances given by the Centre to Parliament. He said it was not only a compromise on national sovereignty, but it also raised questions about the federal structure of the country.” (Emphasis added).

Modi’s point was simple: 80 per cent of the mitigation and adaptation work on climate change was being implemented by the States. Ergo, they had to be consulted.

If you don’t consult us, he added piously, it will be “contrary to the true spirit of India's federal system.” There matters rested for a while. The Centre did not budge.

Mamata’s threat

Then, in 2011, came the Mamata bombshell on the Teesta waters agreement with Bangladesh. If you give any more water to Bangladesh than it is already getting, she said, I will leave the UPA. The government buckled and an extraordinary opportunity of great economic import for India was lost.

Everyone excoriated her but, like Modi, she had a good reason. More water for Bangladesh meant less for the Indians. Or so, at least, she thought.

And now Karunanidhi has joined the battle by quitting the UPA. Indeed, he has expanded the scope of the States’ demand because he wants a say in non-economic affairs as well, namely, that India criticise Sri Lanka on a human rights issue in that country.

Neither Modi nor Mamata had demanded this. This is truly a biggie in constitutional terms because it requires cooperation between the States and the Centre on a hitherto unforeseen and unprecedented scale. The scale of the mismatch between national and regional/States’ interests ought to make everyone sit up.

Two old papers

Soon we can expect the electronic media pundits to start the usual (and remarkably uninformed) discussion on this.

Before they do that, let me draw their attention to two academic papers dating back to 2003 and 2005. Both dealt with the same issue, namely, the role of the States in India’s external relations.

In a marvellously argued paper a decade ago in 2003 (“Federalism and Foreign Relations: The Nascent Role of Indian States,” Asian Studies Review, December 2003), Dr Kripa Sridharan was the first to point out that Indian States were beginning to play a role in foreign policy. Better take note, she warned the Centre.

She said this new development was because of coalition governments. The States had now gained great political leverage over the Centre, which was being forced to take note because its survival was at stake.

In constitutional terms, this meant that the roles were no longer as clear as they had been in the past. The government, as is its wont, did not take note.

Then in 2005, an IAS officer called Julius Sen dwelt at length on the subject. The publication, called Trade Policy Making in India: The Reality Below the Waterline, was published by CUTS, Jaipur, and drew heavily from his Ph D thesis, which he was completing at the London School of Economics.

Basically, he said, at the State level, where trade policy has to be actually implemented, there is neither any idea of nor expertise in international trade policy. On the Uruguay Round he said: “There is no evidence that the Cabinet Secretary sat down and said something to the effect that new consultative and decision-making procedures would be needed to deal with this new and complex form of policy-making.”

Again, the government took no note.

But now perhaps the time has come for academics and policymakers (if not electronic media pundits) to read these two papers. The PMO, in particular, would benefit as it could instruct the MEA to set up a new States division with a joint secretary — from the IAS, please — in charge.

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