Even in the current pro-federalism debate, one area has been strictly reserved for the central government: foreign policy. However, in a diverse country like India we are selling ourselves short by not taking advantage of our states’ ability to directly engage with the world at large. Obviously, New Delhi is the only competent authority when it comes to opening consulates, embassies, visas or in signing treaties. But the central government does much more and states can play a constructive role.
For example, the new ministry of overseas Indians is perhaps an ideal one to be devolved. Kerala or Punjab government could engage the Malayalis or Punjabis abroad a lot better than a one-size-fits-all attitude that a Delhi based ministry takes. Or take public diplomacy as another opportunity: central government will tie itself in knots trying to figure an equivalent of the Confucius centres that the Chinese have created all over the world. It is far better for West Bengal government to open Tagore centres, UP or Rajasthan opening Sufi centres without raising political opposition and also allowing multiple good ideas to compete. It also allows us to customise our engagement approach, for example Yoga in the west, Vipasana in the east may work better and Middle-East or Central Asia would prefer Bollywood over exercise.
Goa recently hosted Lusofonia games that involves 12 countries including Brazil and it is a good example of how we have missed the opportunity to be part of the even larger francophone club of 58 countries via Pondicherry. Conceiving Nalanda University with the support of other (Buddhist) Asian countries is an isolated and poorly executed example of a state trying to engage the world. It is entirely likely that the project could get dumped by a successor government since there is no institutional support at the state level for foreign engagement.
Nitin Pai has already argued for making states a stakeholder in neighbourhood policy. India’s neighbourhood policy is already being heavily influenced by border states such as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. These have been more in the form of virtual veto rights on New Delhi’s negotiations or public posturing for demands. Lack of a formal mechanism to take into account state concerns will miss pro-active opportunities that may exist. An example is Bihar’s annual woe of floods in the Kosi river that need a dam in Nepal. If the MEA’s Nepal department has a representative from (a possible) Bihar foreign affairs office, maybe that will become a more proactive concern. Perhaps Nicobaris will have better idea of engagement opportunities with Indonesia than a distant New Delhi. West Bengal maybe more interested in reopening the Kolkota-Yangon trade route and accelerate such an initiative.
Many policies in the 50s were (rightly) created by a nation unsure of itself and even its abilities to stay together. In 2014, we can now be a little bold and try the unconventional by encouraging each state to have a Foreign Engagement (to distinguish it from External Affairs) department. Involving these as consultative partners for relevant departments or committees in MEA will help and having them engage the world directly will give the much needed boost that our skeletal foreign service needs. We should also not under-appreciate the focus looking outwards gives by making internal disputes look petty in comparison.
Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra