Manmohan Singh says ‘No’ to CHOGM 2013, with a whimper: Anonymous

An Anonymous Guest Post

So, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will not be attending CHOGM 2013 in Colombo after all. Many sections of Indian political and civil society, in Tamil Nadu in particular, will no doubt welcome this. But in reality, far from packing a punch this decision comes more as a whimper. If media reports are to be believed the PM’s letter to Rajapakse “does not talk about the reasons for Dr. Singh skipping the meet”. Muddled and last minute as it has been, far from demonstrating intent the decision actually betrays a singular lack of it, leaving India with little by way of leverage while doing its credibility no good. The PM’s absence will not be comfortable for Rajapakse but in the manner it has come it will in fact cost him little or at least much less than it would have if Delhi had made this decision count politically. But then the United Progressive Alliance is too busy dealing with its own rising electoral insecurities to care for India’s strategic interests let alone the human rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

In reality Delhi had many options. It could have, at the outset, taken a public position that the PM will not attend CHOGM 2013 given the continuing concerns over the tardy progress in reconciliation, continuing threats to dilute or abrogate the 13th Amendment and other human rights concerns. This would have resulted in some significant level pressure on the Rajapakse regime. Alternatively, it could have taken a position that unless definitive and concrete measures are taken—such as implementing key recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC—most of which are being swept under the carpet even though it was appointed by President Rajapakse himself), and securing effective devolution and protection of the 13th Amendment, including land and police powers—the PM would not attend. Apart from giving Delhi more room for manoeuvre, this may have provided a bargaining chip to push a Sri Lankan regime that is not only increasingly recalcitrant with respect to genuine reconciliation but is also inclined towards appeasing hard-line Sinhala nationalist sentiments.

Another possible route was to maintain an open position in public while giving Colombo a set or core concerns on which Delhi would like to see concrete progress if the PM is to attend and announce a pull-out if Sri Lanka was not seen to have taken enough credible steps. Yet another option was for the PM to indeed attend, even while keeping up the pressure on Rajapakse to act on core concerns, and use the visit and the platform to not only actively engage the regime on political solutions, reconciliation and human rights but to also set a forward looking agenda for engagement, including by visiting the war affected areas with proposals to address concerns in areas such as fishing, housing, etc.

None of these options have been exercised. Notwithstanding murmurs of discontent within South Block, like in many other areas of governance, the UPA’s foreign policy with respect to Sri Lanka is marked by indecision, deferral and lack of principles, ultimately leading to its falling prey to a narrow, short-term and speculative electoral calculus.

The larger truth though is that other than voting against Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council in Geneva owing to pressure from across the domestic Tamil political spectrum, India has done little right in the recent past. Delhi has failed to take any meaningful steps towards resolving the Palk Bay fishing crisis even though it has been proved beyond doubt that Indian fishing boats are seriously damaging the livelihoods and marine habitat of Sri Lankan Tamil fishing communities. In fact, much of the noise—and that is what India is mostly making on Sri Lanka, not sense—seems designed to cover up Delhi’s inability or unwillingness to take on this domestically (read Tamil Nadu) politically sensitive issue by the scruff.

The Government of India is doing little to address the significant problems of indebtedness and other concerns surrounding the housing scheme for the war affected that it is funding in the North. Nor has there been any interest in ensuring protection of the rights to land, livelihood, housing, etc. of hundreds of war-affected Tamil families displaced by the Sampur power plant in North-eastern Sri Lanka plant being built with Indian assistance. The list goes on. In effect, Delhi’s engagement with Sri Lanka has not only been incompetent and ineffective but is marked by hypocrisy and a singular lack of concern for the real plight of a northern and eastern Tamil populace still struggling to recover from the war.

It is in this context that the Prime Minister’s belated decision to not attend CHOGM 2013 has to be viewed. The fact that this decision lacked vision and was far from strategic is clearly evidenced by the sheer banality of accompanying explanations including, that in last two decades an Indian PM had participated in only 5 out of 10 CHOGMs, that no Indian PM had attended more than two summits staged abroad, and that no CHOGM sees a hundred per cent participation of all the invited Heads of Govt.

 While Delhi repeatedly succumbs to vacuity and narrow political interests, India is fast losing influence, relevance and credibility, including amongst progressive sections of political and civil society in Sri Lanka. As a former senior Lankan diplomat, once associated with the present political opposition in the country, said to the author recently, “We cannot understand what India wants.” But then nor does Delhi.

 The UPA’s lack of policy on Sri Lanka and absence of a consistently strategic engagement also means that it has created no credible legacy or robust policy direction in this regard. If Narenda Modi walks into this vacuum as Prime Minister next year, President Rajapakse will find an ideologically kindred spirit holding the reins of power in Delhi unfettered by principled precedent. And this cannot mean good news for minorities in Sri Lanka.

7 thoughts on “Manmohan Singh says ‘No’ to CHOGM 2013, with a whimper: Anonymous”

  1. Manmohan Govt. bowed to petty political consideration instead of working for greater national interest

  2. People find it disturbing Manmohan not making it to Lanka…and apparently this is a wrong move. Let me ask you a few questions. Why Lanka is so important for us Indians? We’ve lost our soldiers, a PM, what more do you want? Meeting the Rajapakse government is tantamount to endorsing the mass killing of Lankan Tamils. And for the Indian PM, what’s wrong to be moved by the sentiments of, maybe, even a fraction of Indians. Isn’t it a typical North-Indian alienating psyche to reject the sentiments of south Indians?

    1. Mazumdar : India lost its soldiers & PM to tamil terrorists operating from Sri Lanka and not to Sinhala majority . Moreover , LTTE was creation of Indian intelligence agencies which became a ruthless fascist organization . Why so much sympathy for them . India has unnecessarily muddled in the affair of neighboring country.

      If I take your logic further India should never have talks with Pakistan because considerable fraction of population does not want . Isn’t a typical ‘enlightened’ indian (belonging to mostly maoist-leftist belt) double talk .

  3. Madhur, India’s exports to Sri Lanka in the last four years increased by 113%, from USD 618 million to $1,319 million while Sri Lankan exports to India increased by 342% (Source: Wikipedia). So, you can easily get who’s benefiting more in terms of trade. And, for your kind information, I don’t have any sympathy for the communists. Personally I think loud cry of any “ism” is unacceptable. Anyway, I cited the soldiers’ and the PM’s deaths to point out that it’s better to pay heed to the sentiments of the Indian Tamils so we can avoid any more mayhem. Indian Tamils are our own people, and so I don’t understand why should we not address their grievances. It’s not about sympathy for LTTE, it’s just an argument that we should better pay heed to what our own people say instead of listening to the Lankan sentiments. Here’s another bit from Wikipedia that answers why Indian Tamils are aggrieved: “Estimates varying from less than 10000, to 40,000 Sri Lankan Tamils were reportedly killed in the final weeks of the military victory over Tamil rebels in 2009 as a result of alleged war crimes atrocities that were committed by the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Military, according to the UN, but the end of the civil war has not improved conditions in Sri Lanka, with press freedom not being restored and judiciary coming under political control.” FYI … this account is about civilians. And, India just banked on the sentiments and grievances of the Lankan Tamils, if you say so, to create LTTE. Tamils had already been trudging through tough turf in Lanka for a long time before LLTE’s inception.

  4. Mahur, just to add, in your own words, I don’t want India to get “unnecessarily muddled in the affair of neighboring country.” And all I was talking about the sentiments of Indian Tamils, even though it’s related to the Lankan Tamils.

  5. Mazumder, I really appreciate your detailed and thoughtful reply . The points I like to make is :

    1 . Sri Lankan tamils are Lankan citizens , so it is responsibility of Lankan govt to look after their well being . Even if we want to help Lankan Tamils , we should engage with Lankan govt . so that our concerns can be heard and addressed

    2 Ideally I want India should have negative trade balance with its small neighbors, this will again give us greater leverage and small countries will have stake in our prosperity

    3 I am also not for any kind of ‘ism’ except pragmatism

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