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The two Punjabs

Published Mar 18, 2017 07:08am

LAST month, the government of Indian Punjab asked the central government to negotiate with Pakistan to allow the transportation of exports through Pakistan’s land routes. It said this would also improve India’s trade with the Commonwealth of States countries.

What is far more significant is that Punjab also wants the centre to invite it to future trade meetings with Pakistan. The centre conceded that this issue would be taken up when trade and economic cooperation are next discussed following a resumption of dialogue.

Fortunately, Amrinder Singh has returned to power as chief minister of Punjab. In his previous tenure, he gave ample evidence of a commitment to good relations with Pakistan. Not very long ago, the chief ministers of both Punjabs met to discuss matters of common interest.

Foreign affairs is a subject of the union under India’s constitution and, indeed, of all countries. But there has been a significant shift towards giving the states some voice on the conduct of foreign affairs, especially on matters that directly impinge on their interests and their people’s feelings.

The centre needs to loosen its grip on the states’ affairs.

But Article 253 of the constitution enables the centre to ride roughshod on the states’ rights when it implements not only a treaty but also a decision at an international conference. It states: “Notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this chapter [on centre-state relations in the legislative sphere], Parliament has power to make any law for the whole or any part of the territory of India for implementing any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country or countries or any decision made at any international conference, association or other body.” If the government concludes an international convention on, say, health, parliament will have the power to make any law to implement it, despite the fact that the subject falls in the state list.

In the last nearly 70 years, the number of such international ‘bodies’ has grown significantly. Article 253 will cover an international sports ‘body’ too. But the political realities since have also altered radically. From 1990 to 2014, India’s central government was propped up by regional parties. Political realities affected the play of Article 253 in another respect as well.

Even when Rajiv Gandhi commanded a massive majority in the Lok Sabha, his policy on Sri Lanka was hostage to the wishes of the Tamil Nadu government. It was the West Bengal’s chief minister Jyoti Basu’s trip to Dhaka that enabled India to settle the dispute on the sharing of the waters of the Ganges with Bangladesh. His stature ensured acceptance of the agreement in his own state while also persuading the leaders of Bangladesh to cooperate.

In June 1948, the Indian government offered the nizam of Hyderabad a draft ‘heads of agreement’ on defence, foreign affairs and communications, which were reserved for the Indian government. Paragraph 7 added a qualification: “Hyderabad will, however, have freedom to establish trade agencies in order to build up commercial, fiscal, and economic relations with other countries; but these agencies will work under the general supervision of, and in the closest cooperation with the Government of India. Hyderabad will not have any political relations with any country.” If that was appropriate for Hyderabad in 1948, it is even more so for the states of India’s union in 2017.

It is not necessary to amend the constitution to confer on the states a consultative status on foreign affairs when their own interests are directly involved. Procedures can be devised by the centre in consultation with the states and the document can be endorsed by a joint resolution of both houses of parliament. There is a precedent for this.

In the wake of the constitutional crisis that engulfed Australia when governor-general Sir John Kerr dismissed prime minister Gough Whitlam from office in 1976, a series of constitutional conventions were held on a wide range of subjects, including Canberra’s treaty-power. In May 1996, in a detailed statement to parliament, then foreign minister Alexander Downer announced the government’s decision on parliamentary scrutiny of treaties and consultation with the states. Treaties will, as a rule, be tabled in parliament “at least 15 sitting days before the government takes binding action”. Simultaneously, a ‘national interest analysis’ would also be tabled to set out reasons for ratifying the treaty. Two new bodies would be set up: a joint parliamentary committee on treaties and a ‘treaties council’, which had been rejected earlier.

An agreed parliamentary resolution can give the states greater say on foreign affairs when their interests are involved and also recognise the right of the chief minister to engage with foreign governments on economic affairs, provided that the centre is kept in the picture. They do that already — but the practice should receive formal recognition.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2017

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (17) Closed

Mar 18, 2017 07:31am

Chief Minister of Bengal had joined when Prime Minister visited Bangladesh ...and all long pending issues were resolved including exchange of territories.

Whatever rightly suggested here has been followed by each Government at Delhi since long.

And present Punjab Chief Minister is very clear on this issue and had openly admitted Central Government's final say in the matter.

well meaning
Mar 18, 2017 07:42am

defence is way more important than trade so GOI has authority to overrule states .Simple > amarinder is a CM of one stae and cannot think beyond his narrow vision . if he wants to decide FP should fight election of MP an d join the central govt

Mar 18, 2017 08:10am

"What is far more significant is that Punjab also wants the centre to invite it to future trade meetings with Pakistan." Jump on it! Jump on it - and keep Sartaj Aziz well away from the negotiations. Imran Khan can better negotiate with the Indian government. He might not do much of anything else, but making that trade deal would be enough.

R S Chakravarti
Mar 18, 2017 08:42am

What happened to the Hyderabad trade agencies?

Mar 18, 2017 09:10am

Hyderabad Deccan was supposed to be annexed to Pakistan according to an agreement between the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Brits, yet both Mountbatten and Nehru played a treacherous game by which this agreement was dissolved. This is why Hyderabad was given a "special" trade arrangement which was basically a farce.

Mar 18, 2017 12:04pm

The Pakistan and indian governments must work for the welfare of people of both countries. Both sides of Punjab want trade and commerce normalise . The people want cultural and social interaction. Keeping petty politics aside, the governments must facilitate normal relations between both states

Mar 18, 2017 03:33pm

@ENIGMA sir please read history.Hyderabad wanted to stay independent like Kashmir.Jinnah/Pakistan had opened a embassy/consulate in Hyderabad and vice-versa.

The ruler Junagadh State wanted to join Pakistan and was annexed by India.

Mar 18, 2017 04:58pm

The problem with India in recent years has been too much federalism. Individual states had too much power and influence over the federal government. It is only recently that Modi has been able to put a lid on that expanding state power by getting BJP elected in several states.

While states should have the rights guaranteed to them by the constitution I would like to see them stay away from foreign policy, defense, and fiscal/monetary policy.

Mar 18, 2017 05:02pm

Both Punjabs have different cultures.

Mar 18, 2017 06:11pm

Last month ? Punjab was going to polls in February and results were to be declared in first week of March, I wonder who was making request to Center?

Mar 18, 2017 06:45pm

A G Noorani's should first convince West Punjab and allied areas to give MFN to East Punjab and allied areas

Asif A Shah
Mar 18, 2017 06:50pm

The people of Indian Punjab who are mostly Sikhs and the people of Pakistani Punjab who are mostly Muslims want to have normal cultural, educational and trade relations with each other. They have more in common that unites them than what separates them. Pakistani Chief of Army Staff is Qamar Javed Bajwa. Now, 52 percent Bajwas live in Pakistan, mostly in Pakistani Punjab whereas 44 percent Sikh Bajwas and 4 percent Hindu Bjawas live in India, mostly in Indian Punjab. Sadly, BJP. obsessed with Hindutva, is not sensitive to the concerns of Indian Punjab.

Brijesh Kumar
Mar 18, 2017 08:04pm

@Asif A Shah Indiam govt is very much concerned with Indian state of punjab hence it has started the hydro projects in kashmir to bring water to the state. Hopefully you would be happy with the decision as it would provide more electricity to kashmiris and water to punjab.

Mar 18, 2017 08:23pm

Great Article.

Mar 18, 2017 09:02pm

No trade with any indian state until kashmir UN plebiscite.

Masood Hussain
Mar 18, 2017 10:35pm

Please listen,somebody talking sense.

Mar 19, 2017 06:50am

@Asif A Shah - 60 percent sikhs and 40 percent hindus in punjab

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