While the union government dithered, India’s foreign policy initiatives towards Israel were led by our states.
Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel—the first ever by an Indian PM—brought this bilateral relationship to the centre stage in Indian foreign policy circles. Many articles were written all through the PM’s visit on the advantages and risks of developing stronger ties with Israel. But one critical factor that has made this bilateral relationship reach new heights found almost no mention — the role played by Indian states.
How states came to play a major role on this foreign policy subject
Full diplomatic ties were established between India and Israel in 1992. Even after this move, collaboration with Israel was seen as a hot potato issue in India. The domestic implications of taking sides in what was essentially a religious conflict was a significant impediment to the ties taking off. A few Members of Parliament criticised this step on humanitarian grounds, arguing that New Delhi should have waited until an independent Palestinian state came into being. Some members of the ruling Indian National Congress feared that this step would be detrimental to their electoral appeal to the Indian Muslim community. The Babri Masjid riots further thickened the plot and the Indian government slowed down the pace of the partnership.
It was under these circumstances that the Indian states were allowed to expand Indian collaboration with Israel. Traditionally, Indian states were kept out of India’s foreign policy debates. Even the Constitution assigned all matters of legislation related to foreign policy exclusively to the Union government. Consequently, the proliferation of collaboration between Indian states with Israel was a bold and unique experiment by the PV Narasimha Rao government. While this allowed relations to prosper, it also avoided the politico-religious undertones that would have been hard to suppress had this engagement been anchored by the Union government alone.
Nicolas Blarel in his book The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy documented the exact nature of the states’ role. He wrote:
Indian state governments, free from the political and institutional constraints inhibiting the central government, started directly discussing with the Israeli government and Israeli firms. Several joint ventures, agricultural projects and MoUs were signed between state governments and Israel, notably during the visits of Indian chief ministers to Israel.
Between 1992 and 2013, as many as 17 visits, representing one or more state governments, were undertaken to Israel. Beyond agri-technical cooperation, decentralised cultural links also came into being. For instance, in May 2005, the Bene Israeli community in Israel celebrated ‘Maharashtra Day’ to signal the unique ties with their country of origin. This decentralised relationship soon had the intended effect: progress in India’s Israel policy was insulated from political considerations regarding India’s role in the Arab-Israel conflict, an influential factor for decisions made out of New Delhi.
Even Israel found this low-key engagement method fruitful. Israeli companies were able to proceed on agriculture, solar energy, and water harvesting projects at a much faster pace by directly engaging state governments. Mutual benefits accrued from this methodology were reinforced further with the opening of the Israeli consulate in Bengaluru in 2012. The result: starting from zero in 1992, Israel had developed diplomatic presence in three Indian cities by 2012, the other two being Mumbai and New Delhi.
What are the lessons for states’ role in India’s foreign policy?
Examples of Indian states influencing foreign policy can be classified broadly into three categories.
One, border states have played an important role in developing India’s neighbourhood policy. For instance, state governments of West Bengal, Jammu & Kashmir, Manipur and Tamil Nadu are important stakeholders in India’s policy towards Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka respectively.
Two, quite a few states have become primary movers on the economic diplomacy front through direct involvements with national and sub-national governments across the world. Global Investment Summits by various state governments are now commonplace. Even some traditionally laggard states have caught on to this bandwagon. For instance, in August 2016, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh visited the USA and pitched the state’s investment-friendliness to US companies.
Three, states with a disproportionate share in India’s emigration numbers, such as Kerala and Punjab, have influenced India’s policies towards West Asia and Canada respectively, albeit in an ad-hoc and limited manner.
All three cases are similar in one respect: they are arguments for why Union governments should devolve a few foreign policy initiatives to the states. And like all decentralisation arguments, they face resistance from Union government ministries: no one wants to let go of the power they currently enjoy. Motivation for the engagement with Israel is quite different. Decentralisation of foreign policy can inherently become a boon to the Union government in cases where it wants to keep a bilateral engagement low-profile. In such cases, it can let state governments take the lead. Such a non-unitary approach will further increase the number of favourable stakeholders in bilateral relationships, making them resilient to strategic considerations that can bog down the government in New Delhi.
Are the state governments up to this challenge?
As the Israel case illustrates, Indian States can become powerful actors even in the foreign policy domain. This would require the Union government to formalise and expand the role of states in foreign policy. A Carnegie India report titled Putting the Periphery at the Center by Happymon Jacob makes some excellent recommendations in this regard.
Crucially, apart from New Delhi’s willingness to let go, the involvement of state governments in areas such as foreign policy also depends on their ability to rise above the municipality mindset they find themselves trapped into. State governments are mired in their own decentralisation mess: unwilling to let go of municipal functions, they are inundated with work that can be handled best by local city and village governments. If states wish to raise their profile as foreign policy actors, they will need to aspire higher. As we highlighted in an earlier Pragati article, New Delhi will continue to treat state governments like municipalities if they behave that way.