Will India’s Future Foreign Policy run through Lucknow, Kolkata, and Chennai?

By Prashant Agrawal

As India's regional parties are thrust onto the national stage, they may become pivotal foreign policy players. Here a group of Samajwadi supporters march in Mumbai. Source aljazeeraenglish's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Diplomacy is always challenging, but understanding both where power lies in Delhi and what Delhi wants can be difficult for those that live in Delhi, much less those that live in foreign capitals.  Yet, if India’s 2012 elections portend what may happen in 2014, then understanding both who is in power in Delhi and what Delhi wants is about to become much harder.

A third front government (a coalition led by a regional party) that may come into power in 2014 will be unlike any that have come before it.  The parties that won big in the last two years have little experience at ruling in Delhi.  And their foreign policy goals are even less developed.

The last non-BJP or Congress Prime Minister was I.K. Gujral, who led the last third front government, the United Front, in 1997.  No matter how one views Gujral’s performance as Prime Minister, he was experienced in dealing with foreign leaders and he had a developed world view.  Before becoming Prime Minister, he had served as Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Moscow. He is famous for his Gujral Doctrine which amongst its five principals expounded that India would not seek reciprocity with its neighbors, “but (will) accommodate them in good faith and trust.”

Now contrast Gujral’s world view and experience with the three potential leaders of a new third front: Akhilesh Yadav (of UP), Mamta Banerjee (of West Bengal) and Jayalalithaa (of Tamil Nadu). They themselves do not have deep foreign policy experience, and neither do people in their party.  Banerjee does have Amit Mitra, who served as President of one of the leading Indian Chamber of Commerce’s, FICCI.  But this is not a deep bench of foreign policy mavens.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume they do not have foreign policy goals.  Jayalalithaa is strong supporter of Sri Lankan Tamils; her missive this month to the Central Government was that the Tamil Nadu state government be given prior notice of visiting Sri Lankan officials, for their safety.   Her arch rival, the DMK, is threatening to withdraw support for the Congress government at the Center if India doesn’t vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations.  Banerjee has been vocal in her defense of West Bengal’s right to use the Teesta River that it shares with Bangladesh.  She was upset enough about the central government’s decision in regards to the Teesta waters that she did not accompany Prime Minister Singh on his trip to Bangladesh last year as originally planned.  Yadav’s party, the Samajwadi, did support the US-India nuclear deal of 2008.  But it has never been entirely clear if that was a principled stand or a matter of expediency.  The basic premise of the Gujral Doctrine would certainly be called into question with a new third front.

In 2014, these three leaders could be at the forefront of a new third front.  It may be a long shot, but the chances are certainly greater than zero.  America and others should take notice – foreign policy may now have to also go through Lucknow, Kolkata and Chennai.

Prashant Agrawal is a senior principal at the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consultancy. Mr. Agrawal represented India at the B-20 in Cannes (on the sidelines of the G-20). You can follow him on twitter @agrawalprashant The views expressed here are his own.

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