Sri Lanka: India’s CHOGM dilemma
by R Hariharan on 03 Nov 2013 22 Comments

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is facing a Shakespearean dilemma on the issue of attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Colombo this month. This is not surprising as there are strong political and strategic reasons, both for and against, in connection with the Colombo summit.


Dr Manmohan Singh is facing strong internal and external pressures that cloud objective decision making on the issue. Added to this is the erosion of the PM’s image in recent times on account of the huge scams linked to his office. As a result, each and every decision is being questioned and the same fate probably awaits his decision on CHOGM as well.


Singh has to do some delicate tightrope walking to adjust long term national interest with short term political priorities. The task is made more difficult because it can affect the poll prospects of the Congress party in the 2014 parliamentary election and also the longevity of his coalition before the election. 


Political leaders of almost all hues including the Congress unit in Tamil Nadu have called for a boycott of the CHOGM. This is not surprising as they got on the Eelam bandwagon ever since Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa effectively used the Sri Lanka Tamil issue to sweep the state elections. She has continued her strident stance as many Tamils consider the Centre’s response to Sri Lanka’s war crimes and human rights aberrations as inadequate and ineffective; this has put both the Congress and the DMK on the defensive. Smelling blood, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister turned even more hawkish, calling for slapping a trade embargo on Sri Lanka and international action against President Rajapaksa. These developments in Tamil Nadu seem to have influenced India’s vote against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR last year.


Jayalalithaa called for an Indian boycott of the CHOGM, after which all parties in the state followed suit. None, barring some notable exceptions, have critically debated the pros and cons of boycotting the CHOGM on the country's Sri Lanka policy or on Sri Lanka Tamils.


During the last three years, Jayalalithaa has strengthened her support base with a slew of populist measures like running subsidized food outlets for the poor. Many analysts feel this would help her capture most of the 40 parliamentary seats in Tamil Nadu in the 2014 elections. Ever since Narendra Modi’s electoral bandwagon started gathering massive public support, the Congress Party is in jitters about its poll prospects in 2014 and simply cannot afford to ignore Jayalalithaa and Tamil Nadu. A section of Congress leaders favour an electoral alliance with the AIADMK, ditching the DMK, their long standing partner. 


But neither Manmohan Singh nor the Congress figures in the mercurial Chief Minister’s favoured list. Their only consolation is that she is playing her coalition cards close to her chest, despite her better equation with Narendra Modi. Probably this has given Congress a glimmer of hope of reworking its relations with her. If the PM attends the CHOGM, such hopes are sure to be dashed.


Even without the Tamil Nadu factor, the PM’s decision had been made more difficult by Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s studied indifference to India’s repeated plea to keep his promises on devolution and implementation of the 13th Amendment. Even the latest effort by Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid during his visit Colombo failed to evoke any worthwhile response on substantive issues. The only achievement of the visit was signing of an agreement for the much delayed Indian-aided Sampur power plant (criticized on environmental counts though not a word has been spoken about the Chinese built Norocholai power plant which continues to limp.) With the opposition readying to flay the PM for “yet another foreign policy failure” he may well decide to skip the CHOGM as a politically safe option.


If Manmohan Singh does not attend the CHOGM, he would not be alone. Canada has already announced it would boycott the Commonwealth meet; it Canada was against Colombo hosting it as it would legitimise the Sri Lankan President’s continued indifference to international concerns on his government’s dismal human rights record. Some see the Canadian Prime Minister’s boycott decision as a political move to woo voters of Sri Lankan Tamil origin in his country. In most countries, foreign policy decisions are invariably influenced by popular perceptions and Canada cannot be faulted on this count. Even President Rajapaksa’s decision to host the CHOGM (like many other decisions) is part of his political stratagem to boost his image.


On the other hand, British Prime Minister David Cameron appears to have decided to attend the CHOGM. The British government has reiterated the need to engage Sri Lanka on human rights issues by attending the Commonwealth summit. It proposes to come with “a clear message that Sri Lanka needs to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation and a political settlement.”  


Indian interests in Sri Lanka are much larger than those of either Canada or Britain. Two inter-related aspects guide India’s relationship with its island neighbour – geo-strategy, and Tamil minority question. Geo-strategically, India wields a huge influence over the sub-continent particularly on smaller countries like Sri Lanka. With China whittling away India’s strategic sphere of influence in the South Asian neighbourhood, India has to consider not only its national interest, but also the regional interest, while taking decisions that affect its neighbours. And in Sri Lanka, China is emerging as a direct challenge to Indian presence. In fact, it effectively used the aftermath of the Eelam War to emerge as one of the two big investors and aid givers  in Sri Lanka, the other being India.


So India will have to reckon with the emerging strategic dynamics in its relationship building with Sri Lanka. As the head of state of the country hosting the CHOGM, President Rajapaksa would be its head for the next two years. So Sri Lanka reckons the successful conduct of the CHOGM would boost its international image which had been tarnished in the murky aftermath of the Eelam War. More than that, it would be a balm to the bruised ego of President Rajapaksa who has been hurt by the continued international focus on war crimes allegations rather than his remarkable success against the LTTE. India’s vote for the US resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHCR has already created bitterness against India in Sri Lanka.


If the Indian Prime Minister boycotts the CHOGM, it is likely to add to Sri Lanka’s bitterness. This would not help India’s desire to add more depth and content to its relations with Sri Lanka, but its ability to influence Sri Lanka’s decision making process on both strategic issues and Tamil minority issues.


But the moot question is, beyond its symbolic solidarity with Tamils who had suffered, how would the CHOGM boycott help Sri Lanka Tamils? The much delayed Northern Provincial Council election was held thanks to sustained Indian engagement with Sri Lanka. Subsequently in the NPC poll, people gave a massive mandate to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) hoping the Alliance would help improve their quality of life and ensure Colombo attends to their concerns with greater sensitivity. CV Wigneswaran, NPC prime minister, has given clear indications that he would pursue TNA stated objectives vigorously. This process would require India’s sustained engagement and persuasive influence with Colombo.  


Although CHOGM provides Dr Singh an opportunity to meet other heads of state on the sidelines of the summit, it does not matter whether he attends it or not. In fact, CHOGM is not a vibrant and cohesive entity like ASEAN, but a highly overrated old boys club of former British colonies and the Brits, surviving more on empire nostalgia than on collective international influence. But New Delhi’s decision on CHOGM has to be part of India’s overall game plan because of its impact on India's long term interests in sustaining a win-win relationship with Sri Lanka. So it has to be more than a reaction to local political compulsions.


Contentious issues relating to Sri Lanka Tamils and Sri Lanka’s human rights are not going to disappear, as President Rajapaksa seems to be in no hurry to bring them to closure. A decision on CHOGM would set a precedent when India-Sri Lanka relationship is tested again when the UNHCR takes up Sri Lanka’s accountability issue at its next meeting. So Dr Singh as the Prime Minister has to take a deliberate and informed decision on attending the CHOGM. One can only hope he do so.


This article includes Col Hariharan’s recent comments on the subject in various TV news channels, and web and print media. It was written before Tamil Nadu state assembly passed its resolution on CHOGM

Paper No 700,

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