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Indian PM’s CHOGM dilemma

Manmohan caught between political and diplomatic compulsions

| by Ashok Tuteja

( November 5, 2013, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) It’s a catch-22 situation for the UPA government at the Centre. With rival political parties in Tamil Nadu indulging in a game of one-upmanship to demand boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Tamil Nadu over alleged war crimes against Lankan Tamils, India’s foreign policy threatens to yet again become a hostage to petty domestic politics.

While the mandarins at the Foreign Office are strongly pitching for India’s participation at the meeting, contending that engagement with neighbours is the essence of the country’s foreign policy, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is under increasing pressure even from members of his own Congress party to give a miss to the summit of former colonies of the British Empire.

The Colombo tangle
  • Manmohan Singh is under increasing pressure from within the Congress against attending the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Colombo
  • Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan and Minister of State V Narayanasamy have joined FM P Chidambaram and Shipping Minister GK Vasan in voicing opposition
  • The Tamil Nadu Assembly has already asked the Centre to boycott the summit in protest against alleged persecution of ethnic Tamils during the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009
  • But key officials in the Foreign Office are strongly pitching for India’s participation in the meeting

Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan and Minister of State V Narayanasamy today came out strongly against the Prime Minister visiting Colombo for the November 15-17 summit. Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Shipping Minister G K Vasan have already expressed their opposition to the trip.

While Narayanasamy is from Puducherry, the three others ministers hail from Tamil Nadu. They realise how their political adversaries would try to cash in on the situation, should the Prime Minister heed to the advice of his top aides and go ahead with the visit to Colombo.

Last month, the Tamil Nadu Assembly had adopted a resolution asking the Centre to boycott the summit to register India’s protest against the Mahinda Rajapkasa government’s failure to investigate and punish those who allegedly persecuted the island’s ethnic Tamils in the final phase of the civil war in 2009.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said India’s important strategic interests were at stake in Sri Lanka which has in many ways been responsive to New Delhi’s engagement. In this connection, he drew attention towards elections to the Northern Province after 25 years and the setting up of a Select Parliament Committee on constitutional issues.

The process of rehabilitating Tamils displaced by the prolonged conflict has also proceeded though more could be done. However, what has been done was also significant, he added.

Akbaruddin noted that Myanmar under the military “junta” or Pakistan under the Army in the past had not hindered India’s engagement with these two neighbours.

Even newly-elected Northern Province Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran has invited Manmohan Singh to visit Jaffna, the capital of his Tamil majority province, suggesting that he was in favour of the Prime Minister attending the summit.

Experts say the UPA government has allowed so much political debate on the question of the Prime Minister’s participation at CHOGM. With the summit being just 10 days away, the Indian establishment is still weighing the diplomatic and political fallout of the decision either way.