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India and South Asia: States need to be stakeholders

India’s external environment and the related foreign policy challenges, with a special focus on the South Asian neighbourhood, were usefully illuminated in the course of this week by Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon writes C. Uday Bhaskar

Mar 12, 2012

By C. Uday Bhaskar

India’s external environment and the related foreign policy challenges, with a special focus on the South Asian neighbourhood, were usefully illuminated in the course of this week by Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. 

This was also a period when the domestic political focus was on state elections -- with the Uttar Pradesh results and the contest between the Samajwadi Party heir Akhilesh Yadav and Gandhi family scion Rahul Gandhi receiving the greatest attention

Yet, paradoxically, there is an inherent linkage in the success and credibility of India’s regional foreign policy with the degree to which the proximate states become stakeholders in such an endeavor. In short, Indian foreign (and security) policy, particularly the immediate South Asian neighbourhood policy – which, till recently, was the sole purview of the Union Government in New Delhi -- will have to be rewired, so as to accommodate and benefit from inputs that the state capitals provide. The corollary is that at a time when the “uneasy coalition” is likely to be the prominent feature of  Indian domestic politics and the two major national parties (the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP) are dependent on regional leaders – the evolution and conduct of successful South Asian foreign policy by New Delhi will require the relevant state capitals to acquire appropriate neighbourhood interest and expertise.

Speaking on ‘India’s External Environment and Current Foreign Policy Challenges’ at Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies on March 9, Foreign Minister Krishna asserted:  “The biggest development over the past two decades in our continent has been the evolution of the process of Asian re-integration.” This is almost like a report card of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) since it came to office in 2004 and here the emphasis is on the Manmohan Singh vision of regional economic integration that would trump adversarial or prickly political relationships. Minister Krishna dwelt on how India has been implementing a policy of asymmetric engagement in providing greater market access to its neighbours, so as to enable integration in a mutually beneficial manner. And he added for good measure that: “This is one of the most significant challenges facing our foreign policy today.”

Reiterating this theme, the NSA Shivshankar Menon spoke on ‘Transforming South Asia’ at the Third Asian Relations Conference organised by the Indian Council for World Affairs  (ICWA) and the AAS in New Delhi and drew attention to the imbalance between the political and economic linkages in the South Asian region. Exhorting the experts drawn from all the South Asian nations to apply their minds to this challenge, Menon encouraged them to: “Start considering cooperative security frameworks and architectures for this sub-region, and what conditions would be necessary to make them successful. There are a host of issues such as terrorism, maritime security and cyber security which require cooperative solutions and which bear consideration by groups like yours. In the meantime, we should also move forward much more rapidly on connectivity, including energy and grid connectivity, tourism, people-to-people, trade and economic links that can make such a major contribution to improving our future.”

However, as Delhi knows from recent experience, Prime Minister Singh’s September 2011 visit to Dhaka, that should have been a major achievement of India’s bilateral relations, went off the tracks thanks to the obstructionist stance adopted by the newly-elected Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee. It is not the intention of this comment to dwell on the validity of the Kolkata position but to make a case for much greater and sustained consultation between Delhi and the concerned state capitals when it comes to advancing such bilateral relations.

The West Bengal-Bangladesh linkage offers a very useful case study that encompasses all the aspects touched upon by Minister Krishna and NSA Menon. Developing better connectivity – road, rail and maritime, including the rivers – will dramatically enhance the prosperity and human security indicators for the entire region that extends to the Indian Northeast and Myanmar.

However, this cannot happen in the absence of a comprehensive appreciation in both Delhi and Kolkata of the linkages between the domains – trade, economy, environment, security – and, finally, better politics. Reviving the Kolkata-Dhaka-Yangon transport links, for instance, would in a way resurrect the rhythms of the pre-1947 era, but for this to be realised, Kolkata must be a willing stakeholder in this vision.

In much the same manner, both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are relevant states in relation to Nepal and Bhutan – whether the issue is connectivity or harnessing hydro power potential. But unless Lucknow and Patna become partners with Delhi in this endeavor, these foreign policy objectives are unlikely to be realised.

Thus what merits attention is the need for individual states to acquire this degree of awareness about foreign policy issues – both in their legislatures and among their officials. Over the last decade and more, both when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power and more recently with the UPA at the helm -- the Ministry of  External Affairs has mooted a proposal to post Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers in individual states to provide state capitals this expertise. However, this has not moved meaningfully. The issue needs to be revived and state legislatures should be encouraged to deliberate over foreign policy issues in a regular manner.

The recent success of the Samajwadi Party in the Uttar Pradesh elections and the nomination of Akhilesh Yadav as the Chief Minister of India’s most populous state offers a rare opportunity. While shaking off the “goonda-raj” perception is no doubt the top priority for the new government to be formed in Lucknow, demonstrating an interest in foreign policy-related issues by the new Chief Minister could send a very strong signal – all the way to Kolkata and beyond.

(Commodore [Retd] C. Uday Bhaskar is one of India’s foremost strategic analysts. He can be contacted at cudayb@gmail.com)

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