Parliament and India-China relations
Rup Narayan Das

The recent accusation and allegations by the opposition parties particularly Congress with regard to the government’s handling of the India-China relations, in the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China border was unfortunate and irresponsible. No wonder, it was criticised by army veterans. True, in a parliamentary polity, the opposition has every legitimate right to criticise the omission and commission of the government; but some parliamentary propriety has to be maintained with regard sensitive and delicate issue like national security. The Congress party criticised the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a manner which gave the impression as if the adversary is not the enemy, but the government.

At a time when the government was working militarily and diplomatically literally on hour to hour basis to resist the Chinese aggression tooth and nail, the target of the Congress Party was Prime Minister Modi, which was certainly prejudicial to governments’ serious exercise. This only exposes the true intent of the Congress Party before the people who solidly stand behind the government and Prime Minister Modi in the time of threats to national security and territorial integrity. It has further tarnished the sullied image of the Congress Party before the common menwho have a robust and earthy common sense. It also speaks of the absolute poverty of ideas, which impels the party to stoop low to cheap gimmickry, which is insult to basic intelligence of common men.It is against this back drop that the present article attempts to put the role Parliament on foreign policy issue in proper perspective.

A recurrent theme of Parliamentary surveillance of foreign policy is ensuring security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, and safeguarding the national interest of the people and the country. This is ensured through various Parliamentary and procedural devices, the well-established Parliamentary conventions and through a network of Parliamentary committees. In trying to evaluate the impact of the Parliament on foreign policy or in the conduct of the country's external relations, it will be very useful to decipher the nature of the parliamentary polity of the country in the first place. Philip Norton’s classification of legislatures (Parliaments in the 1980s) based on policy making legislatures, policy-influencing legislature and legislatures with little or no policy impact1 is highly useful to determine the impact of Indian Parliament on foreign policy. It must be noted that India being a Parliamentary polity, unlike a Presidential government as in US, Indian Parliament does not exercise direct control over the making of foreign policy. Policy making legislatures, such as the US Congress, are in a position to not only amend or reject government measures, but also to substitute the same with proposals of their own. In other words, they play an active part in the initiation and formulation of policy. Policy-influencing legislatures, on the other hand, are restricted only to suggesting changes and modification in the policy of the government. Indian Parliament falls in this category and as such the role of the Parliament should be seen in the context of policy influencing legislature.

Although in principle powers with respect to foreign affairs belong to the Government, Parliament at times, is taken into confidence, particularly with regard to the declaration of war and making of treaties, and if any measure calls for an appropriation of public money or for a change in domestic law, then the legislation must be introduced and Parliament's assent sought. Parliament, however, only discusses issues related to the declaration of war or making of treaties. Motions approving or expressing opinions are declaratory only. But then, they help in authenticating the position of the government on a particular issue. Yet another factor that inhibits Parliament's involvement in foreign policy-making is cross -party agreement. Although political parties may disagree on emphasis, a broad consensus does exist among political parties, only the degree of thrust varies. There are several reasons for this bipartisan approach. The major Opposition party, seeing itself as a future Government, will not want to create hurdle for its own back when it forms the government. Electorally, Opposition leaders will see the merit of being seen to support the Government when it is acting in country's interest. This, however, is not always the case. The most likely reason, however, for measures of all party agreement, is that Members on both sides of the House will not wish to allow inter-party squabbles to threaten perceived national interest or security. The effect of this is well summarized by William Wallace in The Foreign Policy Process in Britain.

"Where the front benches are united, as they most often are, the tradition of bipartisanship in foreign policy serves to damp down debate, to lend respectability of national interest to the accepted consensus and to label criticism as somehow extreme, if not also disloyal."2 A third major obstacle to the influence of Parliament in foreign affairs is what Wallace describes as "the peculiar secrecy in which foreign policy matters are discussed and decided (in Britain). In seeking to suppress the dissemination of information and raising and airing of contentious issues, the Government will often fall back on the claim of secrecy, arguing that to reveal too much would be to act contrary to the national interest. It is a claim often disputed but one rarely overcomes.”3

The fourth factor is the lack of political saliency attached to foreign affairs. Even though some Members of Parliament list foreign policy as one of their primary interests, the fact is that the area of foreign affairs is so vast and the Members’ time and commitments pressing that the Parliamentary attention paid to it – other than during the time of crisis– is in reality peripheral. A demonstrated interest in the Korean Peninsula, West Asia or South China Sea dispute is probably not going to get a Member re-elected.

Notwithstanding limitations, however, Entries 10 to 21 in the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution enumerates subjects on which the Union Government is competent to make laws. They are:

  1. Foreign affairs; all matters which bring the Union relation into relation with any foreign country,
  2. Diplomatic, consular and trade representation,
  3. United NationsOrganisation,
  4. Participation in International conferences, associations and other bodies and implementing of decisions made thereat,
  5. Entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing of treaties, agreements and conventions with foreign countries,
  6. War and peace, Foreign jurisdiction,
  7. Citizenship, naturalisation and aliens,
  8. Extradition,
  9. Admission into, and emigration and expulsion from India; passports and visas,
  10. Pilgrimages to places outside India,
  11. Piracies and crimes committed on the high seas or in the air; offences against the law of nations committed on land or in the air.


The Parliament, however, scrutinizes the government's foreign policy through general debate, but it is rarely called up on to provide formal, definitive assent to it.A closer scrutiny and analysis of the debates and deliberations of the Parliament clearly demonstrates the commitment of the country to the strategic autonomy of its foreign policy and how the Parliament has collectively protected it in spite of the dominance of the executive and the numerical majority of the ruling party or coalition of political parties. Protection and promotion of national interest has been the driving force for the Indian Parliament.

The first test of the Parliament’s interest in foreign policy issues was eloquently displayed during the India-China war in 1962.Parliament’s role in India-China relations predates even the Independence of the country and can be traced back to the Provisional Parliament called the Constituent Assembly (legislative). Even before the People’s Republic of China was formally proclaimed on 1st October, 1949, Prof. N.G. Ranga of the Congress – regarded as the ‘Father of the House’ – moving a cut motion in the LokSabha on 4 December, 1947 relating to the demands for grants of the Ministry of External Affairs said, “China has become a sort of cockpit between the Soviet Russia and America. Are we going to keep mum about it, are we going to allow becoming an unfortunate victim of these powers as the Republic of Spain has become? Should we not take a positive stand in regard to this?” Another Congress Member Brajeshar Prasad, supporting the sentiment of Prof. Ranga, said, “India and China are destined to be leaders of Asia. Joined together they will be force to be reckoned with”. He even went to the extent of proposing a federal plan of union, saying, “It is in common interest of both the states to evolve a federal plan of union.” This clearly reflected not only the concern of the Parliament, but also the strategic autonomy germane to India’s foreign policy and articulated through the collective voice of the members of Parliament. 5

Later, however, when the Tibetan crisis broke out, the same Parliament turned critical on China suggesting how the national interest, security, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country was supreme concern to Parliament. The naivety of Prime Minister Nehru was criticized by the Members of Parliament, including some from the Congress party itself. Chinese invasion of Tibet was discussed in the LokSabha on 17th March 1950 in course of a discussion on the Ministry of External Affairs. Members urged the Government to clearly define India's frontier with Tibet. Participating in the debate, P.C. Barua, a member of the Congress party said, "The McMahon line, which was drawn at a conference in Shimla is a vague boundary. The line is more or less an imaginary one and that is the reason why our statesman in this particular area will be put to great test in the years to come." Time has probed how prophetic he was! Intervening in the debate Mr. Frank Anthony, a nominated member of the Anglo-Indian community said, “I believe that it is not only self-delusion... dangerous self-delusion either to hope or to believe, however, exemplary our motives in the international plane, however, genuine our desire for neutrality... for friendship with nations, that the communists will in the final analyses respect our neutrality and our loftiness of motives."6

On another occasion on 20th November, 1950, while participating in a debate many prominent leaders of Congress cautioned the government against adopting complacent attitude towards China. Prof. N.G. Ranga expressed concern at the way the Tibetan question was being handled by the government. He questioned India's wisdom in having pressed for China's admission to the United Nations at so early a stage.Although the animated debate on India-China relations had greatly impacted the decision of the government and continues to impact even today, informed opinion on the desirability of the government to yield to parliamentary pressure on foreign policy issues is divided. The ace diplomat and independent India’s first foreign secretary K.P.S. Menon for example was of the view, “Nehru seemed personally disposed to negotiate on the frontier problem, but he gave up the idea and assumed an inflexible posture as a result of the opposition of some of his senior colleagues in the Cabinet and criticism in Parliament”. 7

Now that the Parliament is going to be convened soon, political parties cutting across party lines should well prepare for a cogent, constructive and healthy debate instead of resorting to political stunts. The forthcoming Parliament session offers a great opportunity to political parties to critique the government. The government will make a suo motto statement in the House explaining the circumstances leading to the conflict and the steps taken by the government to protect the territorial integrity and security of the country.

The statement will also pay fulsome tribute to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives at the altar of the nation. The message for the adversary will also be conveyed in no uncertain words, but couched in very diplomatic idiom. Government will also acknowledge the moral, diplomatic and political support extended to the country. Finally, the statement will conclude saying that government would leave no stone unturned to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. This will be followed by discussions by the leaders of political parties. The discussions should be healthy and constructive. Political point scoring will not be helpful. The discussions should be at macro level considering the sensitive nature of the issue. The forum of Parliamentary Standing Committees which are held in camera, instead, should be availed to discuss sensitive aspects; where top most civil servants and defence officials will be available to answer the questions and queries raised by the members of the Committees.

  1. Cliff Grantham and Brice Jorge, “The influence of the British Parliament on Foreign Policy” in Manohar L. Sondhi (Edited) Foreign Policy and Legislatures, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1988
  2. Ibid p13
  3. The Seventh Schedule, The Constitution of India, (As on 21st November, 2016), LokSabha Secretariat, New Delhi, p.323
  4. Rup Narayan Das, “The Stormy Parliamentary Debates of 1962”, Journal of Defence Studies, Volume 6number 4, October 2012, p.128
  5. ibid
  6. K.P.S. Menon,”Proloue”, in Ira Pande (Edted), India China: Neighbours Strangers, HarperCollins, 2010, p. xv

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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