After a long suspense, India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has formally conveyed his decision not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to the Sri Lankan president. Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid now heads the delegation. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs justified the miss by stating, “We focus on what is required for our national interest, our foreign policy priorities, and our international obligations. Taking those into account, we have our delegations led by different people.” However, the crucial question is, by scaling down the representation in CHOGM, what foreign policy objectives have been achieved by India? What exactly have been lost?
Except to pandering to some hardline sentiments in Tamil Nadu, Manmohan Singh’s absence at CHOGM is not going to achieve anything. It should be understood at the outset that CHOGM is not a Sri Lanka event but an international one; the island state is just a venue. India’s equations with the Commonwealth have to be kept in mind instead of where its meetings are being hosted. By not going personally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has lost three important opportunities.
The first opportunity is in the form of the Indian Prime Minister directly confronting the Sri Lankan leadership on its repeated, but unfulfilled, promises on the both short-term and long-term aspects of the ethnic issue. On the short-term aspect, resettlement and reconciliation have not been moving in an appreciable manner. It has been found that there is a lax on implementing even the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), apparently constituted by Sri Lanka consisting of only Sri Lankans to address post-war reconciliation issues. That was the reason why India had to vote in favour of UNHRC resolution sponsored by the United States that advocated full implementation of LLRC recommendations. On the long-term political settlement of the ethnic issue, Rajapaksa regime has been slippery on the devolution package to the minorities. There already exists provincial council system in the form of the ‘13th Amendment’. Understanding the pitfalls of the 13th Amendment in practice, India has been pushing for a ‘13th Amendment Plus’ arrangement. Colombo has initially agreed, but backed out later. These raise questions of sincerity on the part of the Rajapaksa government towards the island’s minority communities. It was exactly this slackness that actors in Tamil Nadu have picked-up to protest against any kind of positive engagement by India vis-à-vis Sri Lanka.
The second opportunity exists in the form of the Indian Prime Minister to make a personal visit to the Northeast of Sri Lanka similar to what the UK Prime Minister David Cameroon has planned to do. Through such a visit, Manmohan Singh could have achieved two things: The Indian Prime Minister could have seen for himself developments on the ground, especially on the resettlement front. India has given a lot of aid to enable relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of internally displaced persons post-Eelam War IV. It would be easy to address the problems if ground realities and shortcomings are understood properly. Also, through such a personal visit, it would have been an opportunity for the head of the Indian government to reach out to the Tamils, who feel left out by India. In addition, it would have sent right signals to those concerned actors in Tamil Nadu that the Congress-led government is taking personal care of their brethren in the neighbourhood.
Then, there is a third opportunity that cannot be missed. During the Summit, the Indian Prime Minister could have met several heads of government and discussed on applying collective pressure on Sri Lanka on both short-term and long-term aspects of ethnic question. As a largest and one of the oldest members of the Commonwealth, the Indian head of the government carries more weight. The Commonwealth, as a body, could insist on Sri Lanka abiding by chief among the 16 Core Principles like human rights, democracy, tolerance, respect and understanding, freedom of expression, separation of powers, rule of law, and the role of civil society.
It is the Prime Minister’s choice to give a miss to any international event. However, before making the choice, it is prudent to look at all aspects of the issue. Of course, regional sentiments have to be taken into consideration, provided such sentiments are articulated to address the issue rather than aggravating it.