By Sachidananda Murthy –
Coalition and coercion
There is a lament that the UPA government is so weak that it is bowing to pressure from regional parties on foreign policy issues in the neighbourhood. Several former diplomats and commentators are sore that the Trinamool Congress and the DMK have dictated Manmohan Singh’s policies on Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, respectively. Singh had to drop the Teesta water agreement with Dhaka after Mamata showed the red flag, and India voted against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council.
But, a look at the decision-making record of the foreign office and the Prime Minister’s Office shows that regional considerations have had a sway on the approach to neighbours, especially in the south and east. Even when Rajiv Gandhi commanded a huge majority in the Lok Sabha, he had to be sensitive to the feelings in border states. He involved Tamil Nadu chief minister M.G. Ramachandran in negotiations with J.R. Jayawardene, the Sri Lankan president. When he sent the Indian Army to Sri Lanka to tame the LTTE without having a political consensus in Tamil Nadu, there were strong protests. A sulking DMK president M. Karunanidhi forced Rajiv’s successor V.P. Singh to order the Army to come back, without any ceremony at the Chennai harbour.
Rajiv had to abandon the plan to sign a river water agreement with Nepal because of regional sensitivities. On a visit to Kathmandu, he promptly said yes to his Nepalese counterpart who proposed the agreement, which would have been very beneficial to Nepal. The Indian ambassador to Nepal requested a solo meeting with Rajiv, and pointed out that there would be major resistance in the downstream states. Rajiv then told his hosts that he would need time to study the finer details and deferred the agreement.
Similarly, the Central government is sensitive to the sentiments in Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Haryana, before agreeing to any changes in the Indus water treaty with Pakistan, as these states depend on the tributaries of the Indus for their irrigation and drinking water requirements. Even now, Indira Gandhi’s decision to give away the Katchathivu island to Sri Lanka is a sore point, and Tamil parties are demanding that it should be taken back. When the south Asian free trade agreement and the south east Asian free trade agreement were under negotiations, the Centre had to take into account the concerns of Kerala, Assam and Karnataka, which were worried that their plantation crops would be hurt by the free import of tea, coffee, cardamom and other spices. There is stiff resistance from the farming community to the proposed free trade agreement with the European Union, which should have been signed during the summer of 2011. Now, it is in deep freeze. In a coalition era, the expression of regional aspirations gets a coercive edge if a regional party is a key member of the coalition, as it has happened in the case of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
K.S. Sachidananda Murthy is the Resident Editor of Malayala Manorama and The Week at New Delhi. ( courtesy The Week ) firstname.lastname@example.org