What appears to have tilted the balance for the Prime Minister not to attend was the fact that Rajapaksa was unwilling to make any concessions on greater devolution of powers to Tamils even if Manmohan Singh did go.

| by Raj Chengappa

( November 10, 2013, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision not to attend the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) being held from November 15 to 17 in Colombo was one of the toughest on foreign policy he had to take in his almost decade-long tenure as Prime Minister. Days before the event, the divide between the political class on one side and his strategic advisers on the other was marked and out in the open.

The political opposition came mainly from Tamil Nadu parties, both the ruling AIDMK and the UPA’s erstwhile ally the DMK. Just last month, the state’s political parties passed a unanimous resolution in the assembly urging the Prime Minister to boycott CHOGM since the Lankan government had not granted the Tamil minority equal rights that the Sinhala majority enjoyed and also not brought to book those who had committed human rights violations against Tamils during the civil war.
Manmohan Singh & Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision not to attend the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) being held from November 15 to 17 in Colombo was one of the toughest on foreign policy he had to take in his almost decade-long tenure as Prime Minister. Days before the event, the divide between the political class on one side and his strategic advisers on the other was marked and out in the open.

Apart from the state unit of the Congress supporting the resolution, the party’s Union Ministers from Tamil Nadu, including the venerable Finance Minister Dr P. Chidambaram, began openly expressing their view that the Prime Minister should not attend CHOGM. They felt that the political fallout in the state would be serious if the PM attended, as already the party was considerably alienated from the DMK in the state.

After all, in March 2013, the DMK had pulled out from the coalition in the Centre protesting that the UPA government had not backed a stronger resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Commission for a probe into the ‘genocide’ of Tamils during the final years of the civil war. The Congress party is fighting with its back to the wall in key states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi that are going to the polls soon. In the South, it’s already in trouble in Andhra Pradesh over the Telengana issue. So within the party there was tremendous pressure on the Prime Minister not to be politically isolated in Tamil Nadu.

On the diplomatic front, the arguments were as solid. Even if India felt that Sri Lanka hadn’t delivered on its promises on implementing the 13th Amendment which gave greater devolution of powers to the Tamil minority, the best way to move forward was by engaging with it and not cutting off ties. Hadn’t Manmohan Singh met Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in New York recently even though Islamabad had escalated violations of the ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control?

There were other compelling strategic reasons for the Prime Minister to attend CHOGM and not snub the Sri Lankan government at this juncture. China had stepped up its relations with Sri Lanka by helping them build a deep-sea port in Hambantota, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home province. China had also assisted Sri Lanka in constructing a state-of-the-art container terminal at the Colombo port. Any Indian boycott would push Lanka further into strengthening the growing relations with China.

Pakistan, ever willing to step into troubled waters, had offered to train Sri Lankan armed forces officers after India stopped doing so when the Tamil Nadu government protested. Then CHOGM was a multi-lateral forum, not something for India, a major constituent, to be settling bilateral issues. Perhaps the most compelling argument was that India’s strategic relations with Sri Lanka were too important to be determined by only one region’s parochial views.

Yet there are other facts too that had to be taken into account. There is little doubt that President Rajapaksa, after the decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, including the death of its charismatic leader V. Prabhakaran, has moved at snail’s pace to devolve powers to the Tamil minority promised under the 13th Amendment. During the civil war, Rajapaksa had even talked of a ‘13th Amendment plus’, or more powers to the Tamils. But after the Sri Lankan Army victory, Sinhala triumphalism dominates and now the ruling party talks of ‘13th Amendment minus’ and even scrapping the amendment altogether. The Lankan government has been against devolving police powers and land rights to provinces that had been promised under the 13th Amendment as it fears that it could be misused to revive separatist forces. It has also stonewalled efforts to have an independent investigation into war crimes that had been committed against innocent Tamils.

What appears to have tilted the balance for the Prime Minister not to attend was the fact that Rajapaksa was unwilling to make any concessions on greater devolution of powers even if Manmohan Singh did go. Also that there was no real diplomatic gain in expending so much political capital at a critical juncture in the UPA’s future and it would only add to the growing perception of the Prime Minister being a pushover when it came to foreign policy. Perhaps it was also time to let Sri Lanka know that it could no longer take India for granted. If it is not just for political compulsions, then it is justified.

The writer is the editor of the Tribune India, a daily. He can be reached at raj@tribuneindia.com

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