The Roman god Janus had two faces; he looked to both the future and the past. One scholar calls modern foreign ministries Janus-like in that they both face outward and within the country – although the allusion is probably inapt because in common usage Janus also connotes duplicity. Yet the point remains: today’s foreign ministries are preoccupied with home events as never before. The arrival of the Narendra Modi government reinforces that truth for the ministry of external affairs, or MEA.
Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was prescient when on March 13 this year the MEA convened its first-ever meeting of state chief secretaries, to lay out before them this vital external-domestic connect. I am sure MEA officials had not overlooked Narendra Modi’s robust projection of a state or province perspective in foreign affairs, and his concern that this had suffered neglect hitherto. Certainly, under the Indian constitution foreign relations are the exclusive domain of the Centre, not remotely a ‘concurrent’ subject. But managing foreign relations requires the Centre to carry with it the states, the more so in handling neighbours. How can New Delhi frame its Nepal policy without taking into account the interests of Bihar and Eastern UP? And that same logic applies, in spades, to the role of West Bengal vis-à-vis Bangladesh, and Tamil Nadu in relation to Sri Lanka. So how might the MEA reach out to India’s 28 states in foreign affairs? What might be the MEA’s new domestic agenda?
First, engage the states. In the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote regularly to chief ministers; some may hold that those homilies were a little paternalistic, but that was the ethos of the time and our CMs in those days were not globally connected. In an article last year, fellow-columnist Nitin Pai had recommended the creation of a separate council of CMs of states that are proximate to our neighbouring countries. I am not sure if that might not be seen as invidious. Should Kerala be included because it is a neighbour of Sri Lanka and of the Maldives, or because it is the major contributor to the six million Indians that work in the Gulf? And what of the northeastern states that are neighbour not only to Bangladesh, but also Myanmar and China? Better to reach out to all the states; it will also be mutually educative.
Economic promotion work will become a major, natural priority in a Modi government, given the new PM’s Gujarat experience. Take a leaf from China’s book and see how and in what fashion this promotion task can be outsourced to the Indian states. New Delhi has never done this. This will also mean convincing most of the state CMs, ministers and their officials that such promotion does not equate with junkets to Western cities (or sponging on NRI communities in those places), and that there is a substantial, opportunity-laden continent called Africa, and beyond that another called Latin America. Years back, under Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh had established a ‘sister-province’ relationship with a Malaysian counterpart. More recently, when Kerala wanted to station a tourism promotion official in Singapore, the MEA is said to have shot it down. China routinely sends its province-level promotion bodies to hard-sell themselves. Why not harness state entities in more collaborative fashion?
Second, a ‘whole-of-government’ consensus on foreign affairs is notably absent among ministries in New Delhi. Those that have worked in MEA and other ministries have their own perspective on where the blame lies. A year I spent in the PMO in 1981-82 revealed to me how much, in the economic circumstances of those days, India’s compulsion to maximise foreign aid flows dictated foreign policy, and the crucial role that the finance ministry played in shaping Indira Gandhi’s worldview at that time. Times have changed radically, and a globalised India, a putative world actor, needs a radically different, holistic foreign policy, in which the MEA works closely with a range of ministries and other official actors.
Circumstances are propitious. In the past two years, the MEA has shed its ‘silo’ image, taking in over two-dozen officials from other ministries and agencies. The Development Partnership Administration now brings in experts from the private sector to help deliver a burgeoning and increasingly effective foreign aid programme. MEA is to induct a score and more officials from commerce and other ministries into embassy economic sections abroad. Can the new brooms of the incoming ministers of the Modi government push the MEA and all the other economic ministries to join hands for the elevated, holistic goals of India’s external policy? This entails mindshifts: for the MEA to walk an extra mile and ask Commerce or Industry: how can we better work with you in your ministerial agendas? And for those worthies too, to acknowledge MEA as a legitimate economic ministry, one with a capacity to deliver on external markets, in terms of sustained promotional effort, where the very raison d’etre of embassies becomes the domestic growth agenda. Unrealistic? Please read Economic Diplomacy: India’s Experience (2011)*.
Third, engage non-state actors (NSAs) in similar open fashion. MEA has made a start on this, with its annual two-day conference of academics that commenced in 2012, as a public diplomacy initiative. Other actions take place quietly, such as an informal forum of West Asia scholars that meets with Vice President Hamid Ansari, who is a notable expert on this region. What is needed are more such arrangements, preferably institutionalised, where clusters of officials and scholars engage in dialogue on key regions and countries. In years past, mutual disdain between officials specialised in regions and their counterpart scholars was fuelled by monopolist mindsets over information. Today, globalisation has meant that scholars are as well travelled and internationally connected as anyone else. The MEA enjoys fine links with CII, Ficci and Assocham, but why not a council drawn from them and other business circles, to advise on economic diplomacy?
Finally, the idea of MEA offices in states has been kicked around but the MEA’s personnel shortage puts paid to action. Why not turn the idea around – again a leaf from China – and establish such ‘External Affairs Offices’ manned by state-level officials, who also become answerable to the MEA? A few MEA officials who have the inclination might head these, but let them mainly be run by states, trained by the MEA, to help the states in marketing abroad?
Some of the above needs fine-tuning, modification through dialogue. But the key is to re-focus the MEA to first look inward, so as to better re-position itself, as it renews action on its hugely important external tasks.
* Parts of this book are available as open PDF files: http://www.cuts-international.org/Book_Economic-Diplomacy.htm.
The writer is Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi