Opinion World

Victoria Shows The Way

Real reform happens at a sub-national level, and states and cities can have their own foreign policy.

At the Raisana Dialogues last week, Daniel Andrews, the head of the Victorian Parliament in Australia, was speaking about the disruptive nature of city-states. He remarked:

If you now look at the next wave of reforms, real productivity-enhancing reform, they’re not challenges that can be answered at the national level. They’re about heath, they’re about education and skills, formation of knowledge and the important application of that knowledge. They’re about the implementation of national policy. The big productivity levers (at least in our circumstance) are very much at the sub-sovereign level.

Andrews was speaking on how sub-national entities could play a bigger role in foreign policy. This came in the wake of the release of Victoria’s India strategy earlier in January. The strategy takes into cognisance the importance of Indian diaspora, international students and the volume of trade between the state and India. What the state of Victoria has done is not unique but is part of a larger movement that is taking into consideration the importance of sub-national players in foreign policy. In Australia, like in India, the central government has authority over foreign policy. This is important because nation-states need to place national interests above all else in the formulation of foreign policy. Local governments are left out of the picture until the implementation stage.

However, the study of paradiplomacy has been seeing how sub-sovereign actors can manoever around foreign policy. Often local governments have more capacity than the centre to act on such policies. Therefore, allowing them with a little wiggle room could lead to efficient links bilaterally. In India too, this is slowly picking up pace with state-wise global investment forums or foreign visits by Chief Ministers. States can also look beyond the economic aspects of such a relationship depending on their interests. Punjab and Gujarat, for example, have sophisticated institutions set up to engage with the diaspora. this engagement includes providing identity cards, incentives for investment and even provision of security to vulnerable diaspora.

Kerala has gone one step further through the Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs Department (NORKA) to make its diaspora employable, and it provides a wide range of services from pre-departure orientations to skill upgradation programmes, travel assistance etc. These services provided by the state are a natural response to the need of its citizens whose remittances form a huge part of the state’s GDP.

There is a need to infuse some fresh thought into the study. While the union government can maintain its exclusive grip over national security, states need to find ways to constitutionally maneuver through foreign policy. The Victorian strategy is an important case in point. The government of Victoria has focused on businesses, post-graduate students and tourists. These are also areas in which the Victorian government does well — whether it is setting up universities and facilities for international students or making destinations more attractive to students.

States within India can take a leaf out of the book of the Victorian Parliament. Victoria’s Indian strategy has outlined short-term, medium-term and long-term goals and methods of implementation. The most interesting part of the strategy is how it outlines increasing Victoria’s engagement with particular states in India — it specifies the five South Indian states, Maharashtra and New Delhi.

It has also been pointed out that when we speak of sub-national diplomacy, we don’t have to focus on just the state level but even go down to cities. City branding has been popular since the 1900s when cities like London, New York, Milan, Berlin and Brussels (and more recently Singapore and Kuala Lumpur) have tried to woo not only tourists but also businesses.

While India is rapidly urbanizing, Indian cities are nowhere close to international competitiveness of many of their global counterparts. While the idea of smart cities is being paraded around, fundamental reforms are needed within the constitution (such as implementing the 73rd and 74th amendments) to empower Indian cities to be financially and administrative sound. Only then will Indian cities be capable enough to handle their own functions, let alone engage with other sovereign actors around the world.

While this may seem far away, it is not. While we need some basic reforms on a city-level front, Indian state are beginning to see how much wiggle-room they have in foreign policy. Besides, domestic and foreign policy can hardly be divorced. What would make for more efficient engagement is realising that some actors are better equipped than the union government to interact with other global actors, whether it is sub-national players or the government. Until we arrive at this understanding, we can dream of Gujarat or Karnataka having a policy to reach out to Australia, but it will translate to little.


About the author

Hamsini Hariharan

Hamsini Hariharan is the Associate Editor at Pragati. She is the host of the the States of Anarchy podcast. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy, Asian geopolitics, and India's worldview.