India: Regional Aspirations And National Interests – Analysis

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By D Suba Chandran

Are the regional aspirations in India essentially against the national interests? Or, is there a huge gap between the two, that the successive governments and political parties both at the national and regional levels have failed to address?

While the current focus is on the foreign policy disaster in terms of Indian Prime Minister not attending the CHOGM in Sri Lanka due to pressure from Tamil Nadu, this is not a new trend. Earlier, West Bengal asserted itself against a similar visit to Dhaka. While the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is behind Tamil Nadu’s present pressure, West Bengal used the sharing of Teesta river waters as an issue, thereby in both cases damaging Indo-Sri Lankan and Indo-Bangladesh relations.

While it needs a separate analysis on the merits and problems of the above two, the larger question is: do the sub-regions and the rest of nation understand each other? True India is a huge country with different regions, which in turn are heterogeneous. But, is India not also a democracy and federal, both being sanctified by the Constitution and considered as fundamental by the learned Supreme Court? Is it not the essential functionality of a democracy and federation to ensure that the regions and the rest of nation are on the same page?

Certainly, the size of India and its heterogeneous nature cannot be seen as a problem; perhaps, it could be perceived as an excuse, as it has been done by successive governments since independence. The problems between the regions and the nation are elsewhere.

First and foremost, it is the failure of governments at the national level, irrespective of whichever political party was leading the Parliament in New Delhi. The government, its cabinet and the Prime Minister in particular should have been the biggest bridge between the centre and the regions. It is a biggest irony in India that for the government, cabinet and the Prime Minister, the regions are last in their priorities. Worse, at times, they were never even in the list of priorities. How else can one explain the dis-connect between the different governments, and at times even within the same government?

Take the case of Dr Manmohan Singh, for example and his interest vis-a-vis J&K. What has happened between 2007 and 2013 to his approach? What did the region expect from him when he appointed those five working groups and inaugurate the cross-LoC bus service? What happened to the Round Table Conferences that he himself inaugurated?

The interest of the Centre and its priorities are the primary problem for creating the dis-connect between the nation and the regions. The regions rightly feel sidelined, ignored and overlooked. The case is same in the Northeast, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

Second, the coalition politics, undoubtedly exerts a pressure in the communication between the regions and Centre. Sri Lankan Tamil issue was not new; the entire community was under pressure and prosecution in Sri Lanka by successive governments and especially under the present Rajapakse government. But, why is that it has become an issue today, and not few years ago? As long as the DMK was a part of the coalition, there was a better understanding between New Delhi and Chennai. Worse, as long as the cases of corruption by its own MPs, the DMK went slow in pressurizing New Delhi. Today, there is an ADMK government in Tamil Nadu, and the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is an important emotional issue that the political parties are using to gain narrow political mileage within the State.

The coalition politics, and the internal politics within the States, thus do play a role in creating an emotional gap between the State and Centre. In the process, it also creates a gap between the societies.

Third, the failure of governance and the high level of corruption in the regions/States play an important role in the State government blaming the Centre for all the ills. Consider the case of the Northeast; in particular, Nagaland and Manipur are ruled by the underground, where the militant groups openly “collect” a percentage as “tax” even from the government officials! Goods cannot move easily from one part to the other, without “paying” at the multiple unofficial checkposts managed by the non-State actors. Funds and goods from rest of India reaches the State; but, there is an organized underground, which takes it and distributes itself. As a result, the common man suffers immensely and is extremely angry about the present situation.

The State governments in the Northeast are only happy to shift the blame on the Centre. The Centre is well aware of the problem, but it is also a part of the problem, as there is an unholy nexus between the bureaucracy, political leaders and the underground. If the States are shifting the blame on the Centre, the latter is only interested in maintaining the status quo

Fourth, the national media, especially the electronic media is jingoistic and irresponsible, in terms of projecting the regional issues and aspirations, as if only few States around Delhi constitute the Indian nation! If the national media is jingoistic, the regional media is narrowly focussed. Whether it is firing across the LoC, or Teesta river, or the Tamil issue, one could easily observe a pattern in how the regional and national media sees the problem and projects the same.

Besides the media, the research institutions and think tanks at the national and regional levels have a role to play. Again, it is unfortunate, that there are not many think tanks and research institutes at the national level understand the regional aspirations. On the other side, it is equally unfortunate, there are not many quality research institutions and think tanks in the States and regions, that could project their aspirations and alternative approaches.

Finally the role of Members of Parliament. For example, when it comes to India’s Lookeast Policy, everyone in the Northeast complain that the Center is insensitive to the regional interests and overlook the region. Perhaps, this perception is even true. But how many Members of Parliament from the Northeast have raised this issue in a sustained manner and articulated what the region wants, and how it would like to play a positive role. What is the primary purpose of MPs? How effective they are in terms of being a bridge between the region/State and the rest of India?

There is an all round failure and all of us are suffering. How to ensure that the nation and region perceives that their interests are not antithetical, but complimentary? Can the nation move forward without taking the regions along? And can the regions move forward if they want to leave a negative impact on the rest of nation?

D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir

IPCS

IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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