Far from reaching the sky, the Indian project seems to be sinking. This is the message coming out of a clutch of unconnected developments: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh abandons his plans to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka because of protests from political parties in Tamil Nadu; West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee bans the export of potatoes from the state to ensure that the price of the commodity does not rise in her state. In retaliation, elements in Orissa have enforced a blockade of fish and other commodities to West Bengal. We have heard of water wars between states, now things are getting a little bit more elemental.
The founding fathers of this country were imbued by nationalist history, which believed that India had been conquered repeatedly through its history because it was disunited. That is why our constitution provides the Union government exclusive jurisdiction over foreign and defense policy. Foreign and defence policy is understandable, but in many ways the constitutional scheme limits India’s maneuverability since it compels states to turn to New Delhi for even issues relating to trade, consular representation, foreign direct investment and so on. China, for example, has been successful in pushing its provinces to take the lead in various aspects of regional policy.
However, given the CHOGM development, and before this, Mamata’s last-minute torpedoing of the Teesta water pact in 2011 which broke the momentum of good relations between India and Bangladesh, there is some merit to the idea of central control of foreign policy. In Bangladesh, not only have the prospects for India getting transit rights to the North East receded, but also the prestige of Sheikh Hasina, India’s most important partner in the country, has suffered a setback.
The Sri Lanka issue is another case in point. India’s tortured history with the Sri Lanka Tamils is well known. So is the manner in which it has been intertwined with Tamil Nadu politics. Even so, New Delhi managed to actually start a war on Tamil separatists in the island in the form of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Yet now, the ghost of the LTTE, has been resurrected by Tamil politicians in India to damage India-Sri Lanka relations in a possibly fundamental manner.
Simply put, it means leaving the field in both countries to Chinese influence. Already, Chinese investment is making massive inroads into Sri Lanka and has been skillfully used by the Sri Lanka leadership to offset India. Sheikh Hasina remains friendly to New Delhi, but there is no telling what the coming election in the country will bring.
People tend to forget that the India we know is a “constructed” nation, in other words, it wasn’t always there. Indian civilisation may have been around for a while, but the Indian nation is just 66 years old. Moreover, it is far from having stabilised as a nation state: witness the many separatist movements that afflict the country. Not many people realize that the Indian nation of today was a near run thing. The original Mountbatten plan as of April 1947, which had approval of London, was to allow each of the British provinces the option of independence and a partition of Bengal and Punjab. Princely States would have the option of joining any of them. In other words, instead of one India, we had the possibility of five or six Indias emerging.
It was only Nehru’s vehement objections that resulted in the subsequent plan of two dominions being created as the core of the two subcontinental states.
And, as is well known, it was Sardar Patel and civil servant V P Menon who then welded the 560-odd Princely States into the Union of India. Any number of things could have gone wrong here — for example, the Maharaja of Jodhpur who was being wooed by Jinnah could have signed up with Pakistan — and the shape and size of India could have looked very different.
There is a blithe assumption in India that national construction will happen on its own. That is simply not true. The states and the Union government need ever closer cooperation and coordination in a host of issues ranging from dismantling internal trade barriers and creating a single value added tax, to effective intelligence sharing to take on the challenge of jihadi terrorism and Maoism. Sadly, what we are confronted by are leaders who are busy shoring up their vote banks, a sure recipe for a crisis somewhere down the line.
Of course, foreign and security policy or any other policy must take into account the federal nature of our polity. For too long, states have been ignored by the Union government on issues that have a vital bearing on their fortunes.
This process needs to be institutionalised through something more than the usual all-party or national development / integration Council meetings. But, equally, states need to realise that we must not allow our foreign interlocutors to get the impression that there are multiple centres of power in India when it comes to federal policy. Such a course would only open us up for manipulation and maneuvering by external factors, to the detriment of all.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi