Originally Published 2013-11-01 07:30:29 Published on Nov 01, 2013
If India decides to abstain from the CHOGM meeting in Colombo, New Delhi should be clear that it will isolate itself totally vis a vis the Sri Lankan leadership and thereby lose any opportunity to influence affairs in Sri Lanka, including the interests of the Tamils.
Staying away from CHOGM meeting will be a strategic blunder
"Sri Lanka is all set to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on November 15, 2013. India still appears to be uncertain whether it should take part or boycott altogether the meeting on account of mounting pressure from Tamil Nadu. On October 24, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha sponsored a resolution calling for a "total boycott" of the meeting and the State Assembly unanimously adopted the resolution. The resolution noted that "only a boycott would bring about a genuine change in Colombo's attitude to the Tamils on the island." In addition, the state opposition party, the DMK that has remained traditionally supportive of the Tamil cause, has also asked the central government to boycott the meeting in Colombo. Congress Party MPs from Tamil Nadu are also raising the pitch asking for a boycott of the meeting.

The political pressure displayed by all the political parties appears to be a stunt in the backdrop of the national level elections in 2014. The UPA Government is concerned about losing the 39 seats from Tamil Nadu, either to the AIADMK or the DMK in the forthcoming elections. The government should have the guts to call the bluff and face the consequences. Indian Foreign Policy cannot be run by such narrow political interests. India's decision to do a total boycott or a decision on who should represent and at what level, will have consequences beyond its domestic politics. Therefore, the decision should not be left to be driven by domestic interests alone.

Tamil Nadu politicising the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is also full of ironies and contradictions. While the AIADMK and the DMK have postured themselves as the ultimate guardians of the Tamil interests and therefore do not want to engage the Rajapakse Government until Colombo has acted on the alleged war crimes and violations of human rights in the final phase of the LTTE War, Tamil politicians based in Sri Lanka are on a pro-active mode with the Rajapakse government to strengthen their influence and leverage. The new Chief Minister of Sri Lanka's northern provincial council, CV Wigneswaran, in a message to the Indian government, was categorical that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should attend the CHOGM meeting, highlighting that the Indian leader could use the CHOGM forum to send a clear message.

India's indecisiveness on the CHOGM issue throws open opportunities to Sri Lanka to deepen and widen Colombo's relations with Beijing and Islamabad, among others. With the exception of the Canadian Prime Minister, all the other leaders from the Commonwealth countries are attending the meeting, implicating India negatively. Should India isolate itself at a major forum such as CHOGM when it is being held in its backyard?

Sri Lanka is generally seen in India as a potential area where China could create mischief and if the Indian Prime Minister decides to abstain, that only provides opportunities for Sri Lanka's friends to consolidate their ties at the cost of India. Given particularly the importance of Sri Lanka in India's Indian Ocean strategy, New Delhi cannot afford to isolate itself from Sri Lanka. In that context, India must remind itself that it is doing no favour to the Rajapakse Government if the Prime Minister finally decides to attend the CHOGM Summit. New Delhi's participation will create new avenues where it can highlight the deficiencies on the part of the Sri Lankan government. India's participation will also help keep the channels of communication open and the acceptability of India as a neutral party in dealing with the Tamil issue.

If India decides to abstain from the CHOGM meeting, New Delhi should be clear that it will isolate itself totally vis a vis the Sri Lankan leadership and thereby lose any opportunity to influence affairs in Sri Lanka, including the interests of the Tamils and that of (Indian) Tamil fishermen.

Commenting on the Indian dilemma, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Prasad Kariyawasam, in a television interview, commented along the same line: "Sri Lanka would be going ahead hosting the conference and we are happy at the level of participation that we have. It will be those who do not participate who will be isolated, not those who are participating." In addition, India's abstention will strengthen the impression that the Tamil interests solely drive India's interests in Sri Lanka. India's efforts to create multiple constituency articulating closer India-Sri Lanka relations will be hampered as well.

Lastly, an OpEd in the Hindu highlighted Prime Minister Nehru's viewpoints on multilateral forums and how India must not waiver from its principled stand on "full participation in international conferences." Whether India has such a principle or not, the more important point is that it will have an ability to shape and influence events and actions if India is in the room than outside. Staying outside the camp and protesting also does not bode well for a major regional power such as India.

If Prime Minister Singh decides not to go to Colombo for narrow political interests, it will be a strategic blunder. Indian Foreign Policy interests cannot be driven by such narrow political interests of just staying in power. This is a dangerous trend in Indian foreign policy.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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