Bill Antholis of Brookings speaks up on India


William Antholis, April 13, 2012

Nine weeks, 11 states, three conferences, three lectures, four seminars, a dozen ‘dinner seminars’, and 60-odd interviews with policy-makers, journalists, scholars, NGOs, and business leaders. Getting to all those sessions required 14 in-country flights (over 10,000 air km), two trains, 15 cars, 11 mini-vans, two boats, six autorickshaws. Not that I was counting.

My mission: To learn and describe how India’s states shape the nation’s world view. I was joined by my wife and two daughters, aged 8 and 10.

My mission: To learn and describe how India’s states shape the nation’s world view. I was joined by my wife and two daughters, aged 8 and 10.

Many Indians still debate whether it matters when it comes to foreign policy. “Delhi is in charge.” “India is not a federal system-it is a unitary system with federal features.” “People in the states don’t care about global issues.” Time and again, government officials, journalists, academics and analysts rattled off for me the “three lists”-the public responsibilities that belong to the Centre, to the states, and to both in partnerships. Foreign policy belongs to the Centre. End of discussion.

Except that people across the country kept talking about the distinct global issues that matter to them. Tamil Nadu looks to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand-and especially to Sri Lanka. And they care about the global tech revolution. Mumbai watches-and weighs in on the Straits of Hormuz and piracy off the west coast of Africa. Gujarat cares about Middle East oil, and joins Jammu and Kashmir in a persistent focus on Pakistan.

That is healthy in any democracy. In the US, the San Francisco Bay Area cares about worldwide intellectual property protection and H1-B visas; Florida cares about Latin America; New York cares about global finance and immigration; and California, Florida and New York-not to mention West Virginia and Texas-all care about global climate change policy, each in their own way.

India’s national identity is secure enough that it will not be harmed by a further devolution of power to states and localities on a range of issues. The system is becoming more inclusive, and it is taking advantage of impressive state-level leaders across the country, from a range of parties. I was surprised to discover that below the state level, local officials have less authority than at the same level in the US.

Still, harnessing and steering local dynamism remains a challenge. Federalism can become a problem when states fail to see the bigger picture. Many foreign companies worry about the fracturing of parties as only leading to gridlock. And in Singh’s words, “Indian foreign policy towards Sri Lanka should not simply be dictated by Madras, our approach to Pakistan determined in Jammu and Kashmir, our approach to Bangladesh in West Bengal.”

In today’s India, in today’s globally integrated economy, that means managing a parliamentary coalition and also working with chief ministers from Opposition parties. Taken together, that is a difficult and dangerous two-handed juggling act. Top-down no longer seems to work. Leading requires listening and forging pragmatic partnerships.

That is the new reality. Regional parties provide more direct representation of India’s states in New Delhi. And local control directly affects citizens in a global age. The challenge for any Indian leader, as for any American leader, is to craft a clear vision for the country, and to work with state leaders and representatives to bring all of them along.

William Antholis is managing director of the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow in Governance Studies. The views in this piece are entirely his own.