The termination of a one-decade-long no-contact policy with the chief minister of Gujarat,Narendra Modi, by the British government is a pragmatic decision with salient lessons. It illustrates the influence of commercial and diaspora elements in the UK and the rise of India's states in shaping our overall foreign policy.
Despite London's boycott of Modi on human rights grounds after the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat, British companies like Cairn Energy and Shell have been doing business in the state's oil and gas sector all along. But this is a trickle compared to foreign investments pouring into Gujarat from other parts of the world. Modi's strongman brand of capitalism has wowed not only India's corporate titans but also multinational corporations from continental Europe, Australia and the US. His aggressive salesmanship in Japan and China that Gujarat is "different" from the rest of India in offering efficient governance, relatively lesser corruption and predictable business climate has kicked off a beeline of foreign governments and companies to get a slice of Gujarat.
Modi's hyper-charged economic diplomacy has hoisted Gujarat into the ranks of the top five state magnets of foreign direct investment (FDI) in India. The UK, which is coping with a serious economic crisis and absence of business confidence at home, could not have timed its rehabilitation of Modi better. Recent convictions of many perpetrators of the religious pogroms of 2002 by India's judicial system and the absence of legal guilt affixed to Modi himself have eased Britain's choice to enter into "active engagement" with him. The United States, which refused a visa to Modi in the past, could be next in line to normalise relations with an Indian politician who is seen as prime minister material of the future.
One crucial force in Modi's conversion from international pariah into an acceptable gatekeeper of a thriving Indian state was the intense lobbying machine of the Gujarati non-resident Indians (NRIs). A British diplomat informed this author that it was "awkward" for Whitehall to handle nearly 8 lakh people of Gujarati origin on UK soil, many of whom hero-worship Modi, by shunning high-level political communications with their patron in Gandhinagar. The fact that some advanced science and management institutions are also located in Gujarat, and London's interests in forging research ties with them also fed into the rapprochement.
Since the liberalisation of India's economy and the almost simultaneous advent of coalition politics, the incentives for states to venture into the outside world and develop their own mini-foreign policies have multiplied. From the pioneering days of competitive bids to usher in foreign investment by then CMs like Chandrababu Naidu and S M Krishna, the decentralisation of Indian foreign policy has taken on a life of its own today. Modi is riding the crest of what the American scholar John Kincaid labels as "constituent diplomacy", where market liberalisation and federalism combine to create incentives for provincial or sub-national governments to engage in independent international exchanges aimed at winning welfare objectives for their respective peoples.
Modi's remark after the UK's volte-face that "Gujarat and Europe will work together and prosper" is startling because there is no mention of the word 'India' in it, even though the British view their opening of channels to him as part and parcel of oiling the broader UK-India relationship. Some actions of Indian states have unfortunately had an adverse impact on our national-level foreign policy goals vis-a-vis neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But the trend of more autonomy devolving into the hands of state governments to carve out foreign policies that have a bearing on themselves is irreversible. The era of a monolithic nation-state with a centralised foreign policy is passe.
The next general election in India is likely to again anoint regional kingmakers who will determine the make-up of the central government, and consequently, some components of India's foreign affairs. With Modi a strong favourite to be re-elected in the upcoming Gujarat assembly elections, our country's regions will keep roaring and affecting New Delhi's foreign relations. To cite a British diplomat, London takes "relations between the UK and the government of Gujarat" seriously.
The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.