Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s concept of competitive federalism, particularly in matters of foreign affairs, was on display in Kerala during the five-day visit of the Sharjah ruler, Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi . Apart from holding discussions with the Sultan on trade and commercial cooperation and presenting a road map on joint projects between Kerala and Sharjah, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced at a convocation ceremony of the Calicut University to confer a D.Litt on the Sultan that the ruler had agreed to release 149 Indian prisoners from Sharjah jails. “The request I made was to release those people in jail. But why should they be returned, they will be allowed to live there, I will give them jobs, was the response of Sheikh Sultan,” Mr. Vijayan said. In his speech, the Sharjah ruler said: “There are not just people from Kerala or India in jails. We will release all nationals who have completed three years in jail in such cases. And why should they go back home, they will be allowed to continue to work there itself.”
The local touch
A subsequent tweet by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj carried the news of the amnesty, but did not mention the role played by the Chief Minister of Kerala, leading to questions about jurisdiction of the State in such matters. Mr. Vijayan had taken the precaution of writing to Ms. Swaraj about the announcement in Thiruvananthapuram and advised the Government of India to pursue it in other Emirates, so that other Indians could also be released. Moreover, the Indian Ambassador to the UAE, Navdeep Suri, was present in Thiruvananthapuram to keep New Delhi informed of developments.
Although traditionalists may argue that foreign affairs are in the exclusive domain of the Union government, the successful outcome of a request made by the Kerala Chief Minister has been widely applauded. The visit of the ruler was in response to an invitation by the Chief Minister, who was impressed by the warm hospitality and the good words the Sultan said about Keralites when he had visited Sharjah earlier. Moreover, the Sultan has special ties with Kerala. The optimal use of such linkages is what Mr. Modi envisaged in the BJP manifesto: “Team India shall not be limited to the Prime Minister-led team in Delhi, but will also include Chief Ministers and other functionaries as equal partners.”
Having been Chief Minister of Gujarat for nearly 13 years, Mr. Modi is acutely aware of the need for inclusion of State governments in foreign policymaking, particularly in matters relating to trade and investment. He had visited Japan, China and Singapore and seen for himself the potential for the States to play a role in securing the best deals for themselves within the overall policy of the Central government. In his earlier stint as Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu negotiated with foreign governments to make Hyderabad an IT capital, prompting even presidents and prime ministers to visit the city on state visits. Given his personal reputation, the Government of India invited Mr. Naidu to lead an Indian delegation on IT. The policy of countries like the U.S. and China to encourage their State governments to take economic delegations to foreign countries and even to establish their own trading offices abroad was the model.
Remodelling the MEA
After three years as Prime Minister, Mr. Modi claimed that he had established the basic mechanism for the States to play an important role in not only implementing foreign policy, but also in formulating it. The Ministry of External Affairs now has a States division, which keeps in touch with the States to assist them in building bridges with the countries in which they have a special interest on account of proximity or the presence of diaspora from that State. IFS officers have been asked to choose a State each to understand its special requirements and to advise them. Gone are the days when regional affinities were considered undesirable in their handling of international issues. A Foreign Secretary used to say, half in jest, that no Punjabi should deal with Pakistan and no Tamil should deal with Sri Lanka! In the new dispensation, diplomats are expected to bring their regional expertise to take the correct decisions on neighbours.
Pandit Nehru wrote letters to the Chief Ministers, explaining certain aspects of foreign policy, but did not solicit their views, though they could ask questions or make suggestions. But those were the days when he could do no wrong as he was considered infallible and unflappable. But as regional parties began to exert influence at the national level, States began to dictate terms even in foreign policy. The States exercised veto on crucial issues, making it difficult for the Prime Minister to have his way in formulating policy. The Chief Minister of West Bengal stopped then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from signing an agreement on sharing of Teesta waters with Bangladesh after the agreement was negotiated. Political parties in Tamil Nadu not only insisted that India should support the U.S. resolution against Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council, but also stopped the Prime Minister from attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on the ground that Sri Lanka was not safeguarding the interests of the Tamil minority. Kerala itself had insisted that the Italian marines who killed two fishermen should be tried in India and punished here, causing a rift in India’s relations with the European Union. In all these cases, the larger interests of India on the global scene were sacrificed to make life easier for the leaders of the States concerned. Even strategic and security issues were ignored in the process.
It was not unusual for visiting foreign dignitaries to visit State capitals, but it was Mr. Modi who set the trend to entertain them in Ahmedabad rather than in New Delhi. President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan received a royal welcome in Gujarat and pledged support for mammoth projects like smart cities and the bullet train in the State. It was unthinkable earlier for Prime Ministers to establish major projects in their own States without considering the merits of competing venues.
The promise made in the BJP manifesto that States would be involved more in foreign affairs has not been kept as yet as the moves made so far are tentative and half-hearted. A States division in the Ministry of External Affairs, by itself, cannot make a difference in policymaking. A new structure, in which the States are fully represented, should be established and the Ministry of External Affairs should have offices in key States. Think tanks should be established in States to facilitate policy options and to provide inputs to the States and the Centre.
Kerala’s Sharjah diplomacy may have succeeded more by chance than by a deliberate allocation of responsibilities to the State and the Centre. Kerala has legitimate interests not only in the Gulf, but also in many distant lands, including the U.S., because of the representation of Kerala in the Indian diaspora there. The Sharjah success can be replicated only if a new architecture is devised to involve the States in issues identified as crucial to them. A major change in mindset is necessary to accomplish it. The States must also develop expertise on foreign affairs to be able to take responsible decisions in their interaction with foreign lands.
T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and currently Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram