India’s national interest and smaller parties (Commentary)

June 30th, 2008 - 4:03 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Bahujan Samaj Party
By K. Subrahmanyam
The current political turbulence and the calculations about the way in which the smaller political parties will vote on a major issue involving India’s changing foreign policy paradigm have highlighted the need for smaller parties taking interest in foreign policy and international relations. The Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, has the following composition - Congress 153, BJP 130, Left parties 59, Samajwadi Party 39, Rashtriya Janata Dal 24, Bahujan Samaj Party 17, DMK 16, Shiv Sena 12, Biju Janata Dal and Nationalist Congress Party 11 each and 24 other parties with memberships ranging from 1 to 8.

While the mainstream all-India parties have a natural interest in foreign policy, the same cannot be expected of the smaller parties, though individual members of those parties may have significant expertise in the area.

However it must be taken into account that the smaller parties today contribute more than 40 percent of the Lok Sabha membership. Consequently, it is necessary that steps are taken to familiarise them on issues of foreign policy and international relations.

These days the country’s foreign policy and international strategic situation do not come up for discussion in the Lok Sabha as much as they used to do in the days of Jawaharlal Nehru.

The debates on the subject are not at the level at which they used to be in the 50s and 60s. This is understandable. In the 50s and 60s as Nehru was trying to steer India on the non-aligned strategy, he was under criticism both from the right and the left.

Then came a period of consensus. Nonalignment became more than a strategy, almost a creed. That suited India. The end of the Cold War and the beginning of Indian integration with the globalisation process marked a shift in the Indian policy.

The shift was further reinforced with India becoming a nuclear weapon state, a space power and an IT power, its economy growing at more than 7 percent and its trade expanding rapidly.

Now the global expectation is India will become the fifth largest market in the world. The foreign direct investment into India is in tens of billions of dollars. Foreign companies are looking for investment in India and Indian companies are attempting to acquire foreign companies and establish joint ventures abroad.

Large-scale foreign participation is taking place in the development of our infrastructure. India is a major destination for foreign companies outsourcing both manufacturing and services.

Therefore India is no longer as isolated as it was during the nonalignment days. Further there is international recognition about an emerging India being an actor in the international balance of power system. India is a regular invitee to the G-8 summit along with China, Brazil and South Africa. There is widespread support to India becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council. India is also a major contributor of forces to UN peacekeeping operations.

India’s energy demand has an impact on world energy market. The Indian labour in the Middle East and the Indian diaspora in the US, Britain and other industrialised countries have made a mark for themselves. The 2.7 million population of Indian origin in the US constitute a bridge between the countries independent of the state of relations between the two governments.

Indian soft power is also gaining ground. Indian films are becoming increasingly popular in the world. So are Indian music, philosophies, yoga and cuisine. India’s interaction with the English language is expected to make India one of the largest English-speaking countries of the world. Already Indian authors writing in English have attracted worldwide attention.

In these circumstances, India’s foreign policy cannot be left to be focused on only by the mainstream parties while over 40 percent of the Lok Sabha is indifferent to it.

As India’s interaction with the rest of the globe intensifies, the foreign policy, and foreign economic and trade policies are bound to evoke the interest of increasing number of MPs.

Regional parties will be looking for opportunities to attract foreign investments to their states, promote exports from them and secure greater slices of outsourcing pie in respect of manufacturing and services.

Major parties have foreign policy cells at their headquarters and they have the task of briefing the party members on foreign policy issues.

The regional and smaller parties do not have adequate human and financial resources to develop similar capability. Only very recently, a small number of think tanks have developed in India dealing with foreign policy, international economic and strategic issues.

Our universities are yet to develop a culture of attempting to shape and influence such issues. Under those circumstances the parliamentarians of regional parties and smaller parties have to consider ways and means of educating themselves on foreign policy and international relations.

In the US, the Congress has established for its own use, a Congressional Research Service that produces studies on various issues on a regular basis for the benefit of the Senators and Congressmen.

The employees are non-partisan and experts in their subjects. They are available for consultation by members. The Indian parliament, especially regional and smaller parties, can benefit by establishing a similar parliamentary research service.

There is no doubt that our trade and industry are going to be increasingly outward looking. They will also take more and more interest in the country’s foreign policy and international economic relations.

The cost of sustaining our domestic politics on the basis of competitive party system is bound to grow, and political parties will have to rely increasingly for their financial resources on organised industrial and trading sectors.

Therefore in future our political parties have to take into account foreign policy and foreign economic and trade interests of our organised industry and trade sectors.

This is a major paradigm shift not only in respect of India’s role in international politics but also in domestic politics. This is one of the reasons why there is so much resistance to the Indo-US nuclear deal. Parties and politicians who were comfortable with India’s isolationist non-alignment oppose India breaking out and integrating itself with the international system as a major global player.

At this stage in the absence of adequate familiarity with international relations, many regional and smaller parties tend to decide on the issue largely on the basis of parochial considerations and not necessarily on the basis of Indian national interests. However in the longer run, the economic and strategic interests are bound to prevail. It is time that a concerted effort is launched on educating the regional and smaller parties - for that matter even the bigger parties - on international relations and economics.

(K. Subrahmanyam is India’s pre-eminent analyst on strategic and international affairs. He can be contacted at ksubrahmanyam51@gmail.com)

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