Provincial Interests and Foreign Policy

Original Article:  “Provincial Interests and Foreign Policy: Indian States’ Responses to the Malaysian and Kenyan Ethnic Crises,” in Amitabh Mattoo and Happymon Jacob (eds.), Shaping India’s Foreign Policy: People, Politics & Places (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2010), pp. 141-171. (co-authored with Vibhanshu Shekhar).

Extract: It is now widely accepted that coalition politics in India is here to stay. While national parties such as the Congress (I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will likely continue to be at the centre of any coalition for a while yet and there are parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that are beginning to advertise national ambitions by reaching out beyond their traditional provincial bastions, regional parties – parties that are primarily located and have their power bases in particular Indian provinces – will remain agenda-drivers in national governments at the centre. In addition, economic globalization and the processes it has set in motion have led to growing linkages between provincial and global entities, have provided actors at the subnational level further opportunities to involve themselves in global affairs. It is perhaps, natural therefore, to argue that regional parties will also increasingly, seek a say in the nation’s foreign policy.

There are several issues where the Indian provinces and regional parties have had foreign policy concerns. Matters of foreign economic policy certainly already have great impact on provincial governments and regional parties, but foreign policy involving political issues has hitherto, largely been of negative impact and consequence. With regard to China, these have included the Chinese support for northeast India’s insurgencies until the 1970s, and in recent years, accusations by the provincial government in Arunachal Pradesh of continuing Chinese incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). With respect to Pakistan, these have included support to the so-called liberation struggles in Punjab and Kashmir while Bangladesh has been accused by successive Assamese governments of failing to stop illegal immigration into India. In the south, the links of several Tamil parties with and their support for the Tamil struggle against Sinhala domination in Sri Lanka are well known.

This essay highlights  the continuing potential of India’s subnational units to play a significant role in influencing the courses of the nation’s foreign policy. Two events in India’s neighbourhood are used as case studies in this regard. The first is that of the ethnic Indian agitation in Malaysia that began in November 2007 and the second is that of the violence in Kenya following its presidential elections a month later in December, which has affected the economically-strong Indian community there, as well. In the first instance, the unrest was largely dominated by the Tamil community and has particular resonance in the province of Tamil Nadu, while in the second, the Indians affected were largely traders of Gujarati-origin. Both instances saw calls by the respective provincial governments for the central government in New Delhi to take more proactive action. Both the events are profiled in greater detail below and the reactions to them in India – specifically from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat – are examined.

An attempt is made to examine the nature of the provinces’ responses to these crises and the extent to which the provincial governments were able to force the central government to take particular initiatives or modify its course of action. With the exception of the Sri Lankan Tamil problem such ethnic crises across Indian borders rarely created a ripple either nationally or in the concerned province. While the conditions of the Tamil diaspora in Malaysia and of the Gujarati diaspora in Kenya are substantially different and the economic advantages to be accrued to the respective province from each are also different and may in fact, be characterized as of little practical significance, we argue that provincial interests in both Tamil Nadu and Gujarat could not keep silent while their ethnic brethren were in distress owing not just to the increasing contacts with the diaspora but also because it was either politically necessary (for the Tamil Nadu government) or expedient (for the Gujarat government) to raise the matter before New Delhi. Thus we argue that provincial governments can view foreign policy choices differently from the central government. However, far from this always leading to a conflict of interests with the centre, we point out also that provincial governments too, understand that they do not operate in a zero-sum environment vis-à-vis the central government or the target host country of the ethnic disapora in question and that this means that provincial government can be expected to temper their views and actions. This latter fact is in evidence especially in the case of the Tamil Nadu government’s response to the Malaysian crisis. These issues of provincial government interventions in foreign policy matters that essentially fall within the ken of the central government and the implications thereof are examined in greater detail.

Provinces, the Centre and Foreign Policy

During the 2008 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the EAM, Pranab Mukherjee, commended Indian provinces that organized meets with their respective diasporas noting that this would ensure “significant engagement in the States’ development.” He also pointed out to the diaspora that it was “critical… to engage with States as State Governments directly interact with the people and influence policies at the grassroots.”  In a sense, Mukherjee is trying to overturn the history of negative impact that shared ethnicity has usually resulted in, whether in the case of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka or cross-border ties between several of India’s northeastern provinces and parts of Myanmar. However, there is flipside to such efforts in the form of increased pressure on the central government from provincial governments concerned about the fate of ethnic Indians in foreign lands. Still the fact that the Minister chose to stress the continuing importance of the role of provincial governments in India’s reaching out to the outside world indicates that New Delhi believes the advantages of this process outweigh the disadvantages.

The implications of such a policy are far-reaching as showcased by the cases of Malaysia and Kenya. With a global economic output estimated at some US$400 billion, the 30-million strong Indian diaspora has emerged not only as a powerful economic community globally but also as a potential source of resource-generation for development back in the mother country.[1] The diaspora is an important economic player in India in three important sectors – investments, foreign remittances and philanthropic activities. While hitherto, it is the central government that has been chiefly involved in repositioning the Indian diaspora as a “strategic resource of the Indian state,”[2] and in taking various policy initiatives, such as providing fiscal concessions and tax exemptions, to the diaspora to invest in India, New Delhi can be politically constrained by the need not to overreach in order to respect the sensibilities of host foreign governments. Indian provinces are therefore, increasingly stepping into this space to engage with the Indian diaspora using ethnic and cultural linkages and providing their own economic incentives. Several provincial governments have been especially active in soliciting funds and investments from their respective ethnic diasporas particularly in the United States and, in the case of Kerala, also from NRIs in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in West Asia.

As a result, there is a new emerging dynamic involving the provincial governments, the central government and the Indian diaspora. Though the central government remains the principal actor in formulating policies towards the Indian diaspora and countries hosting them, its actions and decisions could increasingly be informed by the demands and interests of provincial actors. This is only one side of the picture. Another, as the case of the Malaysian reaction against Karunanidhi’s statement shows, is that foreign governments can take offense even if it is a provincial Indian government that is involved. New Delhi, therefore, seems to be entering uncharted territory here, in which as provincial governments go global, they will simultaneously need to be informed about the rules of political interaction with foreign governments. However, will the provinces play ball if they are not given a commensurate say in foreign policymaking at the centre? And why in an era of coalition politics, where even the smallest constituent can bring a government down, would they have the incentive to ‘behave responsibly’ or impose costs on themselves? Things are further complicated when the governing dispensations at the centre and the province are in opposing political camps as in the case of the Gujarat government.[3]

First, are provincial governments interested in foreign policy? It is still too early to reach a definitive answer to this question but in general, the statements by the Tamil Nadu and Gujarat provincial governments show that Chennai and Gandhinagar – the capitals of the two states respectively – were not hesitant to take up issues that were essentially the domain of the central government. Both provincial governments called upon New Delhi to take up matters with the Malaysian and Kenyan governments respectively and to ensure the security of ethnic Indians in those countries, making no distinction between PIOs and NRIs.[4] The Gujarat Chief Minister went so far as to tell the Indian High Commission on Nairobi that it be more lenient while verifying legal documents of ethnic Indians on the ground that most of their documents might have been destroyed along with their houses.[5] At the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Modi even made bold to suggest that the central government ought to develop a specific policy framework, which could address the basic problems of ethnic Indians living in different parts of the world.

Differences might be perceived in the reactions of the Tamil Nadu and Gujarat provincial governments to the respective ethnic crises. A major part of the reason why the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu could not adopt a more strident tone is perhaps because it was also part of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition at the centre and could not go out of its way to embarrass New Delhi. It is also possible that the DMK quickly realizing that there was very little it could or wanted to do under the circumstances, was ready to take the centre at its word that something was being done about the situation. In this context, it is likely that the Malaysian minister’s rather harsh remarks against Karunanidhi also allowed the Tamil parties to concentrate on the ‘insult’ closer home and feel that the regional patriarch had stood up to a foreign national government.

The diaspora, meanwhile, is a “strategic resource” not just in economic terms but also politically. As the Indian diaspora in the United States has shown in recent years, the diaspora can lobby to influence and mould policies in their host countries so as to serve Indian national interests, as well. Hitherto, this lobbying has worked only in a few countries of the West and it is usually the case that these diaspora groups function as ‘national’ (read ‘Indian’) groups rather than as ethnic groups. Two important reasons can be put forth. First, though coming from diverse cultural, linguistic and spatial backgrounds within India (Gujaratis, Punjabis, Sindhis, Tamils), ethnocentric majority discourse in the host country stereotype them as a homogenous minority group, meeting out similar treatment of exclusion, whether initial or sustained. This process of stereotyping constantly reminds the immigrant community of their common nationality and binds them together. In other words, the national representation of the minority immigrant ‘Indian’ community is essentially a response to the majority stereotyping. Second, while responding to majority stereotyping, minority Indian immigrants have found ‘Indian’ as the largest and most-comprehensive rallying point, which can enhance their numerical representation, and which is least likely to be subjected to divisive parochial loyalties based on language, region, or religion.[6] However, there is also a ‘provincialism’ in evidence among diasporas, that can be ‘anti-national’ in character as in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils whose diaspora in Western Europe forms the major resource base for the separatist LTTE and the Sikh communities in the United States and Canada who still support the cause of Khalistan.

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[1] “Indian Americans can invest more in India: Vayalar Ravi,” Sify News, 24 September 2007,

[2] Bakirathi Mani and Latha Varadarajan, “‘The Largest Gathering of the Global Indian Family’: Neoliberalism, Nationalism and Diaspora at Pravasi Bharatiya Divas,” Diaspora, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2005, p. 53.

[3] In the case of the Tamil protests in Malaysia, it must be noted that the BJP emphasized also the destruction of temples in Malaysia while Janata Party president, Subramaniam Swamy, pointed out that, “It’s not a Tamil issue. The Tamil Muslims are not participating in the agitation.” The latter went on to accuse Karunanidhi of being imprudent in making such a huge issue out of the subject. Natteri Adigal, “Should TN politicos protest Tamils mistreatment in Malaysia without knowing facts?” Merinews, 2 December 2007, These statements invited adverse reactions from The Milli Gazette, a prominent English-language fortnightly that addresses itself specifically to Indian Muslims in an article titled, ““Let’s not export saffron mischief to Malaysia!” Sampathkumar Iyangar, “Let’s not export saffron mischief to Malaysia!” The Milli Gazette, 1-15 January 2008,

[4] The High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora, in its report defines the Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) as “foreign citizens of Indian origin or descent,” and the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) as “Indian citizens, holding Indian passport and residing abroad for an indefinite period, whether for employment, or for carrying on any business or vocation, or for any other purpose.” See “Report of the High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora,” Non Resident Indians & Persons of Indian Origin Division, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India,

[5] “Indians not Targeted in Kenya: MEA,” Indian Express, 2 January 2008, Modi also asked that the Yellow Fever vaccine certification procedure be done away with while processing the visa applications of Gujaratis returning to India.

[6] Martin Baumann, “The Hindu Diaspora in Europe and an Analysis of Key Diasporic Patterns,” in TS Rukmani (ed.), Hindu Diaspora: Global Perspective (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal 2001), p. 59; Bakirathi Mani and Latha Varadarajan, “‘The Largest Gathering of the Global Indian Family’: Neoliberalism, Nationalism and Diaspora at Pravasi Bharatiya Divas,” Diaspora, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2005, pp. 45-74; Ajay Kumar Sahoo, “Issues of Identity in the Indian Diaspora: A Transnational Perspective,” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, Vol. 5, No. 1-2, 2006, pp. 89-90; Shampa Biswas, “Globalization and the Nation Beyond: The Indian-American Diaspora and the Rethinking of Territory, Citizenship and Democracy,” New Political Science, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2005, pp. 43-67

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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