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.