Role of States in India’s Foreign Policy

The theme is topical. Intense debate has been generated on this issue since India back tracked from the signing of the Teesta water sharing agreement on account of objections from the government of west Bengal. This has definitely affected India Bangladesh relations.

More recently, the DMK party, a coalition partner of the congress in UPA 2 has withdrawn support from the government on the issue of a resolution at the Human rights commission against Sri Lanka on alleged atrocities by Sri Lanka armed forces against the Tamils.

A look at India’s map shows that barring Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, all Indian states have borders with a foreign country or they have international waters. Therefore it is important to appreciate that Indian states have a natural stake in the foreign policy of the country.

The North East is a particularly sensitive region of India. The NE states all have international borders. Illegal migration is a difficult issue here. The North Eastern states have a special significance for Indian security and prosperity. They have a huge influence on India’s relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. North East is also a key element of the Indian Look east policy which involves relations with 10-meber ASEAN. An increase in the connectivity between ASEAN, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China and the North East has the potential of transforming the region fundamentally.

Further, in the era of globalisation the interests of states are affected by the treaties the Government of India signs. This is particularly true of he FTAs, CEPAs, climate change and a host of others issues. The negotiations at the Doha round of WTO have been blocked for more than a decade because of the interests of the farmers. Similarly, the government has taken a position at the Climate Change negotiations to protect the livelihood of the poorest sections of the society. Such issues cut across states.

States are also key players in the implementation of the economic reforms policy. We have seen acute debate on the FDI in multi-brand retail sector. The government was forced to give options to the states whether or not they wanted to implement the policy. Since the opening of the Indian economy, hundreds of billion of dollars of foreign direct investment has come to India. Today, many states are vying with each other to attract foreign investment. States also benefit from foreign aided projects in socio economic sectors. Indian states have a major stake in the globalisation of the Indian economy.

Some states play an especially important role in India’s linkages with key countries. An example is that of Kerala due to a large number of Keralites living in the Gulf countries. Kerala is also in the news these days in the context of India Italy relations. The public sentiment in Kerala on the killing of two Kerala fishermen by Italian security guards of a ship has caused national furore.

Jammu and Kashmir has had a special and disproportionate share in influencing India’s relations with Pakistan. India has been a victim of cross border terrorism. A lot of infiltration takes place across the LOC in Jammu and Kashmir.

Culture has come to occupy an important role in India’s relations with its neighbours. Indian boundaries are such that people speaking the same language and sharing same culture and social traditions live on both sides of the borders. Very often the boundaries come in the way of normal social interaction which has gone on for centuries. This is particularly true in the North East as also in the west.

Relations with Indian diaspora is another example where states are very active. Indian diaspora abroad hails from all parts of India. But some states like Kerala, Gujarat, Punjab, UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Nagaland have large number of their kins living in other countries. These states have an influence on India’s foreign policy formulation and its execution.

There are many such examples which underline the critical role of states in India’s foreign policy.

Constitutional scheme

The Indian constitution provides for a unitary state with federal characteristics. This makes India a quasi federal structure. Article 51 of the constitution forms the part of the Directive Principles of State Policy. The State shall endeavour to-

  1. promote international peace and security;
  2. maintain just and honourable relations between nations;
  3. foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in dealings of organised peoples with one another; and
  4. Encourage settlement of international disputes by arbitration.

The task of governance is divided between the centre and the states in accordance with union, state and concurrent lists provided in the seventh schedule of the constitution. The residuary functions not specifically mentioned in these lists are assigned to the centre. Entries 10 to 21 in the union list deal with external relations:

  • Foreign Affairs; all matters which bring the Union into relation with any foreign country
  • Diplomatic, consular and trade representation
  • United Nations Organisation
  • Participation in international conferences, associations and other bodies and implementing of decisions made thereat.
  • Entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing of treaties, agreements and conventions with foreign countries.
  • War and Peace
  • Foreign jurisdiction
  • Citizenship, naturalisation and aliens.
  • Extradition
  • Admission into, and emigration and expulsion from, India; passports and visas.
  • Pilgrimages to places outside India.
  • Piracies and crimes committed on the high seas or in the air; offences against the law of nations committed on land or the high seas or in the air.

Thus, there is no ambiguity about foreign policy in the constitution. Foreign policy is the function of the central government and not the states. This was considered necessary to maintain wholesomeness of foreign policy as also the sovereignty of the country in foreign affairs.

However, in democracy all policy is essentially politics. A government’s policies are the result of political compromises. Foreign policy is no exception. As noted above, the influence of the states on foreign policy is increasing, particularly since the advent of coalition policy. Thus, the central government has the difficult task of determining what the national interest is, and whether it reflects the interests of the states.

For several decades, foreign policy making has been a simpler task. The central government, the Ministry of External Affairs and its missions make and conduct foreign policy. Other parts of the government are taken on board as & when it is found necessary. The policies are debated in the parliament. In the past governments, thanks to the majority of the ruling party in the parliament, were able to have demands for grants of the MEA approved in the parliament. Even the parliament had a limited role in the day-to-day task of making the foreign policy. There used to be a healthy practice of debating the issues in the parliament. This gave the government a good idea of the national sentiment.

In the recent years, the situation has changed drastically. The members of the ruling coalition often have large influence on the foreign policy. The determination of what constitutes national interest has become complex exercise. The government was forced to stake its survival by seeking a vote of confidence on Indo-US civil nuclear deal. More recently, it had to agree to a debate followed by vote on FDI in retail. This is unprecedented. The government’s ability to make and conduct policy is being circumscribed at every step. Arriving at a consensus has become difficult. With drastic reduction in parliament’s working time, the attention devoted to foreign policy issues has also declined.

The government has to devise ways to accommodate the interests of the states. This is being done on an ad hoc and sporadic manner. For instance, on important matters, senior government officials consult and brief the chief ministers. They also brief their coalition partners and the opposition parties as and when they deem it necessary. Pandit Nehru used to write detailed letters to the chief ministers on foreign policy issues explaining to them the rationale of foreign policy decisions in the backdrop geopolitical and evolving national interests.

But this is not enough. Most of such interactions are sporadic & need based. There ought to be a systematic interaction between the centre and the states to determine what the interests of the states are. States’ interests are also dynamic. They do not remain static. For instance, the MEA could have offices in some of the state capitals for regular interaction on foreign policy matters. There are several constitutional mechanisms which could be activated. Some foreign policy decisions can be taken in inter state council and national development council where states are represented at chief minister level. Unfortunately, these institutions are comatose, serving little purpose.

A note of caution

While legitimate interests of the states must be taken into account, it must be appreciated that foreign policy is not simply the aggregate of the interests of various stake holders. It is through its foreign policy acts that a nation is conceived as a sovereign nation in international affairs. There cannot be multiple sovereignties or multiple identities in external affairs.

Foreign policy is also about how a nation acts and behaves as a member of international community. A nation’s behaviour must be in accordance with international norms, traditions and laws. For instance, all countries have to act in accordance with the conversations & agreements it signs. India is signatory to a large number of international conventions and treaties. Failure to act in accordance with international law can entail severe consequences and dent a country’s image.

While national law is always supreme, there is also a danger that an overdose of nationalism can be a problem internationally. Thus, it has to be ensured that the integrity of foreign policy is not disturbed by interests that are too narrow. Further, foreign policy is often made keeping in mind the geopolitical factors. Geopolitical considerations may dictate a country to pursue friendly relations with a country or group of countries but his may some times entail give and take on specific interests.

It has to be the endeavour of the central government that proper balance between specific and wider interests is maintained. Take the case of the Indus water treaty. India signed this treaty by giving away rights of usage of waters on the so called western rivers – Chenab, Jhelum and Indus – in order to gain rights on the rivers Ravi, Satlej and Beas. This treaty is seen a bad bargain by the people of Kashmir but it had a positive impact on the people of Punjab and Rajasthan. Similarly, the Ganga waters treaty with Bangladesh, signed in 1996 with the active help the then chief mister of West Bengal, entailed a compromise.

Or take the case of Kachchativu island. India ceded it to Sri Lanka in the long term interest of good relations with Sri Lanka. But the opinion in Tamil Nadu is different. Many feel that Tamil Nadu fisherman’s interests were given away. Such decisions are never easy and often generate controversies and side effects. Such agreements would not have been possible had only the interests of states were factored in. in diplomacy compromises are always made. But some compromises may turn out to be bad while others endure. There is always a risk in diplomacy.

Today, a country’s security and prosperity is increasingly linked with factors outside its control. Globalisation is also leading to dilution of state sovereignty. Therefore, it is necessary not to define nation’s interests in very narrow terms. A room for manoeuvre must always be kept. Smart diplomacy is one where a nation is able to defend its core interests while it makes concessions on peripheral interests.

Borders enter India’s foreign policy at several levels. The very definition of India as a sovereign country depends upon a clear definition of its borders with neighbouring countries. India’s borders with China are not settled. This is a major issue in India’s security and foreign policy.

Similarly, India’s border with Pakistan is not fully defined. We have an international border and a line of control.

With Bangladesh, we have a land border we are moving towards resolution of land boundary but we are still not there.

With Myanmar we have no dispute. India still has to resolve its maritime border with Bangladesh.

With Nepal we have an open border and still have a problem on the definition of tri junction.

With Bhutan the border is settled but we may be affected by how Bhutan settles its eastern boundary with China.

But border issues are moving higher up in Indian foreign policy porticoes.

The issue of trans-boundary rivers is now a critical one for India’s foreign policy. The Indus water treaty with Pakistan has been in existence since 1960. Of late Pakistan has moved the dispute settlement machinery on the issue of Baglihar dam and Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project.

Bangladesh is unhappy over India’s inability to sign the Teesta water sharing agreement.

We are concerned over China’s building of dams over Brahmaputra river in Tibet. India-Nepal Mahakali treaty is in limbo.

Border management issues involving trade, human trafficking, border trade, illegal trade, illegal migration, drugs and arms smuggling, border fencing etc are major issues of concern for India. India’s sovereignty is tested by organised crimes, insurgent groups ever so often. Porous, ill governed borders create huge law and order problems too. India is trying to evolve a variety of mechanisms with neighbouring countries to deal with these issues.

The involvement of the populations of border regions in the formulation and implementation of a proper border management policy is of great significance. Border regions need to be given special attention for a successful border management policy.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has now set up a Borders Management Division which needs to be strengthened and its scope needs to be enlarged. There ought to be good coordination between the various organs of the government dealing with borders and between the central government and state governments. But that still leaves out the problems of dealing with the micro issues which involve the people at local level.

Finally, the border regions play an important role in the context of regional and sub regional cooperation. India’s Look East Policy, if formulated and implemented carefully, can be a game changer not only for India but also for the prosperity of the North East region. Mishandled or badly implemented, the LEP could create problems. Thus, it is essential that the people of the North East should be involved in the conceptualisation, formulation and implementation of the Look East Policy.


In conclusion, I would like to state that the constitutional arrangement on foreign policy is logical and sound. This need not be changed as tinkering with the constitution could have harmful effect on national unity. At the same time better mechanisms should be involved so that there is a meaningful dialogue between the centre and states on foreign policy issues. This may slow down decision making but its long term impact would be beneficial for the country.

Thank you. by Dr. Arvind Gupta .

2 thoughts on “Role of States in India’s Foreign Policy”

  1. The Teesta River (Pron:ti:ˈstə) or Tista (Nepali: टिष्टा, Hindi टीस्ता, Bengali তিস্তা) is said to be the lifeline of the Indian state of Sikkim, flowing for almost the entire length of the state and carving out verdant Himalayan temperate and tropical river valleys.

    The river then forms the border between Sikkim and West Bengal before joining the Brahmaputra as a tributary in Bangladesh

  2. India must strategize the Tista river conflict. So that our relation with Bangladesh could be strengthened.


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