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Paradiplomacy in the Indian Context: The Opportunities and Challenges

By Professor Tridivesh Singh Maini

The recent UAE visit of Kerala Chief Minister, Pinari Vijayan highlights the growing importance of India’s states in foreign policy – due to a variety of factors – economic and non economic. This phenomena is often referred to as ‘Paradiplomacy’, ‘Constituent Diplomacy’ and in recent years there has been a growing interest in the same in India. It is important to understand that Para-diplomacy is not restricted to economic issues, there is a ‘Soft Power’ component to it. A clear example of this is the role of diaspora. Paradiplomacy is also important in the context of India’s neighbourhood policy. While many analysts and commentators believe states have been obstructionist in the context of India’s ties with neighbours, Punjab has played a constructive role in trying to improve trade and people to people links with Pakistan.   It is important for analysts and commentators to understand the finer nuances of paradiplomacy and for a true spirit of cooperative federalism to prevail for paradiplomacy to be successful.


During his week-long visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), earlier this month, Kerala CMPinarayi Vijayan discussed ways for promoting closer economic linkages between UAE and the South Indian state. Vijayan was in the US for medical treatment and stopped over at the UAE, on his way back.

The visit was important because of the reception he received: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, broke protocol and met Mr. Vijayan at the Dubai Expo 2020 venue. A number of prominent individuals, including the Chairman of Emirates Airline Group, Sheikh Ahmad bin Saeed Al Maktoum were also present during this meeting n. Apart from the Crown Prince of Dubai, the Kerala Chief Minister also met with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, Abdulla Mohammed Al Mazrui, Chairman of Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry and UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al Hashimy. 

Vijayan made a case for greater co-operation between Kerala and UAE and expressed  hope that the latter would support important infrastructure projects in the state.

Role of Kerala expats in Kerala-UAE ties

Kerala’s expats, estimated at 1 million, account for a significant percentage of the Indian diaspora not just in the UAE, but in the Gulf region as a whole. They have played a very important role in strengthening economic as well as people to people linkages. Vijayan,  while unveiling the “Kerala week” at  the Expo,  referred to their role in promoting the state and its interests ,and in also standing by the state during times of adversity. Vijayan also said that his government will launch projects which could benefit expats who plan to return. Historically, remittances from the Gulf have contributed immensely to Kerala’s economic growth .  In recent years, however, due to the slow down in Gulf economies as well as the covid19 pandemic, a large number of expats have returned to Kerala and there has been a pronounced dip in remittances. In 2020, the drop in remittances from UAE to India according to World Bank estimates was a staggering 17%.

The role of people to people links in UAE-Kerala linkages.

After his meeting with Vijayan, the Ruler of Dubai,Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum tweeted in Malayalam and acknowledged the role of Keralites in the growth of Dubai and UAE, while Vijayan responded with a tweet in Arabic thanking the Maktoum for his warmth and hospitality and also expressed the hope that ties would strengthen further. 

The UAE Minister of State referred to the close cooperation between UAE and Kerala – which was not restricted to the economic sphere:

‘The UAE and India and Dubai and the state of Kerala enjoy strong and valued relations at every single level — as governments, as partners in trade and sustainable business growth, and as brothers and sisters — together through hard times and good times, through challenge and eventual inevitable triumph.’

Timing of the visit

Vijayan’s visit comes at an interesting time, as there is a growing debate over the nature of Centre-State relations after Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s  speech in Parliament where he said:

“India is described in the Constitution as a union of states and not as a nation’ 

Further, the Congress leader also pitched firmly for closer cooperation between the centre and states. 

The visit is also important, because there have been very few official visits by Chief Ministers in the past two years, as a result of the covid19 pandemic. 

This trip is therefore a clear reiteration of the importance of ‘para-diplomacy’/’Constituent Diplomacy’ or the role of state’s in Indian Foreign Policy (in spite of Foreign Policy related issues being a part of the Union list, which is under the purview of the central government) as a result of a combination of a number of factors irrespective of the political dispensation at the centre. The increasing importance of regional parties in India after the advent of coalition politics, influential expat populations from a number of states in the West, Gulf Countries and South East Asia and what Rudolph and Rudolph dubbed as ‘India’s Federal Market Economy’ have been cited as some of the reasons for the increasing role of states in external outreach. 

Current narrative on paradiplomacy and diaspora 

There is a growing interest in terms of scholarship and research with regard to this trend, but if one were to look at media coverage or analysis, the thrust is on para-diplomacy purely in an economic context. The ‘soft power dimension’ of para-diplomacy like people to people contact are often ignored. Similarly, while the role of certain sections of the diaspora, especially in the West, are highlighted, political and economic reasons result in the relegation of certain sections of the diaspora to the margins. For instance, the role of blue collared workers in contributing to India’s economic growth does not get the same attention as the achievements of immigrants in the west. Similarly, the role of Punjabi diaspora in UK, US and Canada in Punjab’s economic growth and overall future gets scarce coverage – especially in the national media – while there is more focus merely on issues pertaining to politics (especially the role of Punjabi diaspora in Punjab’s elections) or those which may draw eyeballs. 

Different layers of paradiplomacy

If one were to look at paradiplomacy in the context of India’s ties with neighbours, while certain commentators try to put forward the argument that states have played an obstructionist role in ties with neighbours (referring to the role of West Bengal in India’s ties with Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu in ties with Sri Lanka) it is important to bear in mind that if one were to look at the instance of India-Pakistan ties, Punjab has been seeking closer trade ties and people to people linkages for long. 

While some commentators argue that states have been obstructionist in ties with neighbours (referring to the role of West Bengal in India’s ties with Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu in ties with Sri Lanka), it is important to remember that in the case of India-Pakistan ties, Punjab has been seeking closer trade ties and people ties.

After the re-opening of the Kartarpur Religious Corridor in November 2021, Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi paid obeisance at Gurudwara Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur), and spoke in favour of the revival of India-Pakistan bilateral trade via the Wagah-Attari border (there is also a growing chorus for opening up another land crossing Hussainiwala (Punjab, India) -Kasur (Punjab, Pakistan). During the current assembly election campaign in Punjab,this has not emerged as an important issue, though it has been raised repeatedly by Punjab Congress Chief, Navjot Singh Sidhu . All political parties of the state have also historically included trade with Pakistan in their manifestos (whether they have lobbied effectively for the same is a different issue). The manifesto of the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), a recently formed political front of 22 farmers’ unions, for the upcoming assembly election in the state (on February 20, 2022 )has included trade with Pakistan via Hussainiwala as an important item in its manifesto.

In conclusion, governments’ roles in foreign outreach are expected to grow and should be promoted. It is critical for the centre and states to be on the same page, and for the centre to promote and assist paradiplomacy activities regardless of the state’s political dispensation. While certain formal structures have been put in place, paradiplomacy will only succeed if the concept of ‘cooperative federalism’ is truly followed. While scholarly interest in constituent diplomacy is expanding, certain strategic observers who are opposed to federalism need to take a more balanced approach to this phenomenon and recognise that paradiplomacy is a win-win situation for everyone. State governments, for their part, should guarantee that overseas outreach benefits their individual states and is not only for photo shoots.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.

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