Millennium Post

Rising above the Tamil crisis

Domestic compulsions seem to be playing a big role in the neighbourhood foreign policy of both India and Sri Lanka. The CHOGM meeting to be hosted by Sri Lanka from 15 to 17 November has become a test case with a question mark about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh participating in it. Prince Charles will represent Queen Elizabeth II as the head of the Commonwealth at the Colombo meet.

The summit meeting, which is a matter of prestige for Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse, is clouded by controversy. Of the 55 commonwealth members except Canada, almost all the others are attending the summit. Bowing to the pressure from the Tamil diaspora, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper is boycotting. Even Britain is facing pressure to lead a boycott.

There has been an active campaign against the human rights violations in Sri Lanka by several bodies including Amnesty International. Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has called for an inquiry after his recent visit to Sri Lanka, claiming that the island country was becoming increasingly authoritarian.

But Singh is yet to take a call and there is debate within the government whether he should go to Colombo. Some of his cabinet colleagues including P Chidambaram, Narayanaswamy and G K Vasan, who hail from Tamil Nadu, are opposed to Singh’s visit. Playing competitive politics, almost all the Tamil Nadu political parties, big and small, including the local Congress, the ruling AIADMK and the main opposition DMK demand boycott of CHOGM. Although the Sri Lankan Tamil issue had never won them votes, they continue to make it an issue. The continuing disputes over fishing rights between fishermen of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka also has become an irritant.

Singh cannot ignore this domestic pressure ahead of 2014 Lok Sabha polls although foreign policy is the main concern of the Centre in a federal system. Tamil Nadu has 39 seats while Pondicherry has one. Since 1967, when the Congress lost power, it has always been riding piggyback on one Dravidian party or the other.

The other factor is the apprehension whether Rajapakse will amend the constitution removing land and police from the purview of the Tamil ruled provinces. This would damage the Indo- Sri Lanka accord of 1987. New Delhi believes that Rajapakse is playing his politics and might amend the constitution after the CHOGM or after the March United Nations Human Rights Council meeting.

India’s primary commitment to Sri Lankan Tamils is implementation of the 1987 Accord, under which Provincial Councils were established and empowered under the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution. Sri Lanka has not empowered the Provincial Government to administer key areas such as Law and Order and Lands.

Above all, with the assessment that the trajectory of Indo-Sri Lanka relations declining with domestic pressure overtaking foreign policy concerns in both Delhi and Colombo, the argument is of what use Singh’s participation would be in the CHOGAM.  But should not one cross the bridge when the time comes?

On the other hand there is a strong case for Singh’s participation. The relationship will sour if Prime Minister does not attend the CHOGM meeting, as Rajapakse would take it as an insult when he claims that he was doing all he can and has just ensured a successful election in the northern province where a new government has taken over.

Secondly, bilateral concerns should not prevent Singh from attending a multilateral meeting. Singh has not stayed away from any multilateral fora so far because of domestic concerns. If irritations between the two neighbors should stop him from attending multilateral meetings, then there is a case for his not attending the SAARC.

Thirdly, opting out of CHOGM meet will not help the Tamil cause as Singh could use the Colombo meet to put pressure on Rajapakse to fulfill his commitments with the support of international community.  The Sri Lankan President should be cornered on the human rights violations, which the international community is agitated about.

Fourthly, Singh should visit Jaffna and get first hand information on the ground situation. It will send a good signal to the Tamils and the newly elected government. The new chief minister Wigneswaran has already invited Singh to visit Jaffna. He has also not opposed Singh’s participation in CHOGM.

 Fifthly, a dialogue with Sri Lanka is better than leaving the field entirely to the Chinese. The heads of state attending the meeting this year would land at the newly built swanky Rajapaksa international airport   and also watch the cultural performance at the recently inaugurated Rajapakse national theatre both built with the Chinese help showing the increasing presence of the Chinese.

 Moreover, the Chinese have successfully cultivated all neighbors of India be it Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar or Pakistan. In comparison, Singh has not undertaken any bilateral visit except to Bangladesh in the past decade.   After the recent visit of Foreign minister Salman Khurshid to Sri Lanka, the assessment is to keep the diplomatic engagement going.

With the growing debate on federalism and foreign policy, it is clear that the states are playing a dominant role and domestic politics are overtaking the foreign policy considerations. Whether Singh will heed the MEA and the PMO’s voices or the chorus coming from Tamil Nadu is to be seen. In all probability it will be politics, which will overtake other considerations. It is quite possible that President Pranab Mukherjee or Vice President Hamid Ansari may represent India at CHOGM. It could also be Salman Khurshid.   But Singh’s presence would be more effective than his absence in Colombo.  If he is far sighted, he should attend the CHOGM and fight for the Tamil cause from within.
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