Since he took office in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he favours Indian states partnering with those in the international arena in order to promote India’s interests abroad.
While this is a new approach in India’s foreign policy, Modi cannot be credited for inventing this wheel.
Promotion of “local interests” overseas by sub-national units has become a global phenomenon. Sub-national governments – both state and municipal - in the Western world have long fostered sister-city and sister-state ties. Japanese and Chinese sub-national governments have vigorously pursued their economic and cultural interests through trade linkages, cultural exchanges and scientific cooperation through sister-state relationships.
Australian states too have pursued their own economic interests overseas. Just last week, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill led a 200-plus delegation to China.
Some sub-national governments even pursue policies independently of their national governments such as Quebec in Canada. Others have represented their local interests by taking a different stance from their national governments. Okinawa Prefecture in Japan, for example, has pursued its own local position in Washington independent of the policy stance held by the national government on the deployment of US troops in Japan.
In contrast, Indian states have been largely inactive in their international engagement, even in non-controversial areas such as trade and cultural exchanges.
Made in India, by the states
As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi was only a handful of chief ministers who recognised the importance of connecting states to foreign countries in the pursuit of trade and investment. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh has been another internationally active chief minister in India. Both reportedly succeeded in attracting trade and investment to their states from foreign sources, adding to their states’ prosperity. Hard statistical evidence is difficult to obtain but visits to these states by leaders such as President Bill Clinton and President Xi Jinping suggests they’re regarded as important destinations for trade and investment.
The successful “Vibrant Gujarat” biennial investors summit has seen states such as Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal follow suit with summits aimed at acquiring foreign investment.
Modi is now trying to institutionalise and strengthen such Centre-State partnerships, leveraging states to promote his “Make in India” vision, which also stands to benefit their economic development. Prior to Modi’s recent China visit, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu was chosen by the Ministry of External Affairs to lead an Indian delegation, a move previously unthinkable.
Two chief ministers – Anandiben Patel from Gujarat and Devendra Fadnavis from Maharashtra accompanied Modi to China. The chief ministers met Chinese provincial leaders and potential investors, but also joined the India-China State and Provincial Leaders Forum, which act as a dialogue forum between governors of Chinese provinces and chief ministers of Indian states. Beyond simply enhancing economic ties, the forum aims at strengthening people to people contact and establishing cultural and educational ties.
Similar sub-national linkages were made when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India in September 2014, including an agreement for a sister state-province partnership between Gujarat and Guangdong, and a sister city partnership agreement between Ahmedabad and Guangzhou.
While Australian states have pursued their own interests overseas, their engagement with Indian states remains rather weak. It’s time for Australian states to think seriously about linking themselves with Indian states, as they have done with Japan, China and a number of European and North American states and provinces.
Diplomacy in the twenty-first century no longer starts and ends in national capital cities, nor is it the sole preserve of national leaders and national diplomats. Modi is the first Indian prime minister to recognise it and has taken the first few steps to partner with Indian states and cities in promoting his global engagement agenda.
Read the other articles in our “Modi one year on” series here.