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Indian Parliament and Sino-Indian Relations

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  • December 03, 2010
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chair: Prof. V P Dutt
    Discussant: Prof. Sumit Ganguly and Amb. Suresh Bhutani

    The paper argued that the role of parliament in Sino-Indian relations can be assessed under following heads: debates on Addresses by President of India to joint sessions of Parliament, ‘demands for grants’, Annual Report of Ministries, motions and resolutions, statements, questions, etc. In addition, the role of standing committees, particularly on defence and external affairs, and of the parliamentary consultative committees, as well as exchange of parliamentary delegations and Parliamentary Friendship Groups can also be highlighted as providing a comprehensive picture of the role of the Indian Parliament so far as India-China relationship is concerned. Sino-Indian relations have figured and at times have drawn the attention of both the Houses of parliament. When we talk about Indian Parliament and Sino-Indian relations, perhaps the role of political parties also figures automatically; after all, parliament and political parties are intertwined.

    The role of the Indian parliament in Sino-Indian relations predates even the Independence of the country and can be traced to the Provisional parliament called the Constituent assembly (Legislative) and that of the political parties, particularly the Congress party, and even prior to that when Nehru sent a medical mission led by Mohanlal Atal which included the legendary Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis at a time when China was fighting Japan.

    Debates on foreign policy enable the government to demonstrate that Indian democracy works, educate the electorate, and legitimise the foreign policy. Parliamentary debates, while often eloquent and lively, merely serve to keep ministers vigilant, but do not alter policy because they usually follow, rather than precede, governmental policy actions. However, at times of crises, Parliament rises to the occasion by playing a significant role in foreign policy making. As far as India’s relationship with China is concerned, there is a degree of consensus among political parties. While the CPM has been sympathetic to China, Socialists like George Fernandes and Mulayam Singh Yadav have been critical of China. But among major political parties there is a broad consensus.

    Secondly, the role of parliament is minimized since the nature and structure of foreign policy making in a parliamentary polity is often characterized by a degree of secrecy considering its sensitive and strategic nature. Thirdly, as far as Sino-Indian relationship is concerned, South Block at times is not inclined to leave much space for other stake holders including the Parliament for the very reasons mentioned above. These are some of the inherent limitations while working on a project like assessing the role of parliament in Sino-Indian relations. Nevertheless, parliament continues to be the fulcrum of the legislative and policy-making process and it is the pivotal institution through which omissions and commissions of the government are accounted for.

    Amb. Bhutani highlighted the procedures which parliament employs while discussing foreign policy issues. He also showed that in the initial years foreign policy had an economic dimension. For example, when Prime Minister Nehru wanted to establish land cooperatives it was not received positively because people thought that he wanted to follow the Chinese or the Soviet model. In that sense, economic policy was seen as intimately linked with foreign policy.

    On the other hand, parliamentary debates on the Tibet/China issue were resented by Beijing. It felt that New Delhi had no right to discuss matters pertaining to Chinese domestic issues and saw it as Indian interference in China’s domestic affairs. Meanwhile Nehru had to let the debates go on since they served as a safety valve when emotions were running high within India after the ‘liberation’ of Tibet by the People’s Republic. As a result of these debates China condemned India as well as the Dalai Lama.

    Prof. Sumit Ganguly highlighted the fact that the paper attempts to cover a large gamut of issues and it should try and focus on one or at the maximum two time periods. As the area which is being covered is huge the debates appear to be moving from one topic to another. He also said that there is a need to show that Nehru’s understanding on China was not that nuanced and he was not clear about his stance throughout. He also asserted that the Parliament needs to take a stronger stance on current issues. He stated that Parliament needs to follow what are the outcomes of the scheduled meetings to discuss the border problem and what is the progress being made as a result of these meetings.

    Some other points that were highlighted during the discussion include the comment that paper gave the impression that only Congress members took part in active discussions. There were also suggestions that the author can simply limit his focus on the Indian parliament’s role when it comes to the Tibet issue since in any event the border issue is related to it.

    In his concluding remarks, Prof. Dutt stated that Parliament becomes very important in times of crises. He also said that Dalai Lama’s flight and its ramifications have not been included in the paper. He suggested that if the author refers to the Parliament papers and discussions it will add more depth to the argument of the paper.

    Report prepared by Gunjan Singh, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.