State should be allowed to have their own foreign policies

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 18, 2014 22:52 IST

The outright majority won by the BJP in the elections is viewed in many quarters as a positive development for the country’s policy agenda. Those holding the view that a single party government is good for growth should not forget that India witnessed its highest growth rates during the coalition era. However, the government’s role is not merely to facilitate economic development.

The coalition era helped to deepen Indian federalism. The rise of the BJP, which is not a ‘national’ party, would reverse the gains achieved in the last two decades. India’s relationship with Sri Lanka is a case in point.

The Centre’s handling of Sri Lanka reeks of centrifugal elements threatening to make a comeback in the foreign policy formulation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ignored protests in Tamil Nadu against extending an invitation to the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the government.

The gesture by India strengthened the view in Sri Lanka that the BJP will be favourable in its approach towards the island nation. In an opinion piece carried shortly after the election results were declared, The Nation said, “As it turned out, the election results were a blessing for Sri Lanka. Modi won, but the scale of his victory was such that BJP is in charge and does not require the support of coalition partners,” adding, “All these factors augur well for Sri Lanka and it would be reasonable to expect a change of attitude in New Delhi’s dealings with Colombo...”

The frequent attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Lankan authorities speak volumes for the way Colombo perceives New Delhi and the decline of Tamil Nadu’s influence over it. The incidents have reinforced fears of past heavy handed approach by single-party governments, like the ceding of Kachchatheevu and the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, being repeated by the BJP.

Although it is too early to judge, New Delhi’s approach towards Sri Lanka seems to be guided solely by larger geo-strategic and economic considerations that have little relevance to the common man. Any policy that does not take into account the concerns and emotions of people affected by it is bound to fail in the long run.

The ideal situation would be to make relevant changes to the law so that the Centre deals with larger geo-strategic issues while leaving space for individual states to decide their own foreign relations that are largely in sync with the former. The recent appointment of a joint secretary for “Centre-State” relations in the ministry of external affairs is a good start. The role should be expanded to enable the office to become a conduit in the exchange of ideas on foreign policy between the Centre and states. For this it should work in close co-ordination with the state government. A Tamil Nadu foreign office could be evolved in due course.

Tamil Nadu has been, for long, demanding that diplomats from the state cadre be posted in countries with substantial Tamil diaspora. Tamil Nadu can become a geo-strategic power centre in own right.

India is the fifth largest export destination for Lankan goods and 40% of the approximately $6 billion trade between Lanka and India passes through Tamil Nadu. The informal trade through the state is estimated to be nearly double the formal one. Tamil Nadu should have the option to impose economic sanctions on the country, if necessary.

The devolution of powers should eventually lead India to become like the European Union — where people of autonomous states move freely within the Indian union, enjoy security, participate in a single free-market where they use the same currency and at the same time have their policy-makers respect local aspirations.

Rohit Viswanath is an independent public policy adviser
The views expressed by the author are personal

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