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.
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.
Mid Day November 12, 2013