Home / Opinion / The role of states in foreign policy

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, completed a successful four-day visit to India on Monday. What remained unaccomplished, however, was the conclusion of the Teesta water-sharing agreement. The governments in both New Delhi and Dhaka are on the same page but the deal has been held up due to the intransigence of Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal government. During Hasina’s visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that his and Hasina’s governments “can and will find an early solution to Teesta water sharing".

Despite remarkable progress in bilateral relations with the finalization of the land and maritime boundary in the last three years, the unfinished Teesta business has become the touchstone for the bilateral relationship. Speaking at an event in New Delhi, Hasina guaranteed that once the water-sharing deal was concluded, “the face of Indo-Bangladesh relations would undergo another transformation". On her discussions with Banerjee, Hasina added, in a lighter vein: “We had asked for water but she is giving us electricity. At least we got something." The question here is: Do individual states have a veto in matters of foreign policy?

In an recent interview to The Hindu, the former high commissioner of Bangladesh to India, Tariq Karim, blamed India’s cooperative federalism for the lack of progress on the water-sharing issue. He advocated that the principle of collaborative sub-regionalism should trump cooperative federalism. A reasonable argument can indeed be made that cooperative federalism in this instance is against India’s national interest as China is courting India’s neighbours, including Bangladesh, with an open wallet. And this is not the first instance of a state coming in the way of national interest.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu, for example, influenced the Manmohan Singh government’s policies on Sri Lanka when the island country was being offered a number of sweetheart deals by China. The Singh government was not just forced to vote against Sri Lanka in the UN Commission on Human Rights but the Tamil Nadu parties effectively vetoed Singh’s plan to travel to Colombo for the November 2013 Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

The Tamil issue in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu is a highly emotive one with a complex history involving identity rivalries, but the water-sharing holdout by West Bengal is comparatively easier to resolve. If, as a border state, West Bengal is given more autonomy over cross-border cooperation with Bangladesh, it is likely to generate incentives for Banerjee to make some concessions. The idea is to tie West Bengal’s economy in deep and meaningful ways to Bangladesh’s; the Teesta agreement could then be sold as a quid pro quo for reciprocal benefits. This is exactly the collaborative sub-regionalism Karim talked about—but it does not come at the expense of cooperative federalism. In fact, it comes with an even higher degree of cooperative federalism.

John Kincaid of Lafayette College had coined the term “constituent diplomacy" in 1990 to denote the “international activities of a foreign-policy character undertaken by the constituent governments…and local governments (mostly municipalities) of federal countries and decentralized unitary states, as well as by citizen organizations and non-governmental organizations". It is also variously referred to as “paradiplomacy" or “sub-national diplomacy". The practice of constituent diplomacy has been observed across Europe and North America but it has increasingly been adopted in the rest of the world as well. China is a good example.

With an authoritarian political set-up, one would assume China’s foreign policy to be highly centralized. It is indeed. But Chinese provinces also have their own foreign affairs offices (FAOs) and foreign trade and economic cooperation commissions (FTECCs) to deal with international partners. Many Chinese cities have opened overseas offices to attract investments and promote trade. Provincial governments play a big part in setting the agenda of the sub-regional initiatives that China is a part of. The role played by the border province of Yunnan, for instance, has been highly instrumental in the success of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), which includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

It is largely due to provincial autonomy that China has been able to extract much more from its sub-regional initiatives (the GMS, Tumen River Area Development Programme, Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation, and Pan-Beibu Gulf Economic Cooperation) compared to India’s takeaways from the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), and the forum on regional cooperation among Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM). The Modi government’s new sub-regional initiative involving Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal (BBIN) will meet the same fate if the provinces do not enjoy greater latitude in shaping the agenda of regional cooperation. The geographical expanse of India mandates a role for border states greater than New Delhi in matters of sub-regional cooperation. West Bengal and all the North-Eastern states become crucial in this regard.

While New Delhi needs to adopt a firmer stand on matters of core national interest, it also needs to give the state governments greater freedom to pursue cross-border economic partnerships. It is actually possible to marry cooperative federalism to collaborative sub-regional cooperation.

Should West Bengal be allowed to obstruct the Teesta water-sharing deal? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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