Will Indian PM Singh boycott Sri Lanka Commonwealth summit?By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay Oct 21, 2013 1:21PM UTC
Probably for the first time in Indian politics, the prime minister’s decision to attend a Summit-level meeting of a multilateral body is likely to be dictated by domestic pressure, which has become acute in an election year. This underscores the growing fragility of the Indian government and also the increasing weakness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Summit in question is the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, November 15-17. What has complicated matters for New Delhi is that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that he will boycott the high profile meeting of the body. He has cited Sri Lanka’s failure to investigate human rights violations during and after the 29-year civil war that fractured the island nation. The Canadian government has also consistently argued that there is continuing erosion of democratic freedoms under the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Though Sri Lankan and many Indian Tamils have applauded Harper’s actions, they are critical of Australia and Britain whose premiers have indicated that they will board flights to Colombo in November. These groups, who also have backers among human rights groups, have accused Canberra and London of putting domestic political concerns ahead of Commonwealth principles. They further contend that attendance by leading countries at next month’s Colombo summit would help “consolidate” the regime.
Pressure has mounted on Manmohan Singh to call off his visit because of growing pressure from Indian Tamil political groups. K Thiagarajan, General Secretary of Tamil National Liberation Movement, has been on an indefinite hunger strike since early October. He is demanding that the Colombo event is cancelled and moved elsewhere, and if this is not done then Singh should stay away. The fast was started in dramatic circumstances after the Madras High Court allowed it following a petition after police refused to give permission for the hunger strike.
Within days of the fast, the state Opposition DMK chief M Karunanidhi made a similar demand and publicly extended support to the fasting leader. In may be recalled that in March this year the DMK quit the United Progressive Alliance government after repeatedly voicing its consternation over the Indian government’s policy on Sri Lanka. Karunanidhi’s initiative sparked a similar reaction from other political parties, most notably Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa who also demanded from Singh that he “exert diplomatic pressure” on Sri Lanka by boycotting the CHOGM and ensure that Rajapaksa’s government adopted a reasonable approach towards its Tamil minority population. In his bid to fish in Tamil waters in the election year, even Narendra Modi at a lecture in Chennai on October 18 said that he favoured greater role for states in evolving foreign policy. The move is an attempt to connect with the anti-Lanka sentiments in the state and thereby keep doors open for allies – either before or after elections.
Under pressure from former allies, potential allies and adversaries, Singh took an unprecedented step of writing to Karunanidhi. He wrote that there was no decision yet on attending CHOGM and that it would be taken after considering various factors, including sentiments of Tamils. Singh wrote: “I wish to inform you that a decision on the issue of my participation in the CHOGM conference will be taken only after considering all relevant factors, including the sentiments of your party and the Tamil people.”
However, there are other Tamil groups which do not consider there is any need for Singh to stay away from CHGOM or for India to lobby for shifting the venue. Vardaraja Perumal, a former chief minister of Sri Lanka’s North-Eastern Province from the days of Tamil militancy has a completely different viewpoint. Speaking to Asian Correspondent, he questioned why CV Wigneswaran, 73, who was sworn in as the first elected Tamil chief minister of Sri Lanka’s northern province last month, has not called for a boycott of the summit. The Tamil National Alliance won 30 out of 38 seats in last month’s polls – the first in the war-torn region since the councils were formed 25 years ago and Perumal argues that since neither the government nor the people have voiced opposition to the Summit, it should be held as per schedule.
Perumals’s views are echoed by many analysts and observers. They argue that most Indian Tamil political parties and leaders have engaged on the issue with an aim to pander to Tamil sentiments within India without keeping long-term interest of Sri Lankan Tamils in mind. This becomes particularly true as the dream of a Tamil Eelam or a separate Tamil state is no longer a significant sentiment among Tamils in both countries.
The situation is also particularly advantageous for Indian Tamil groups because of recent incidents in which Indian fishermen have been arrested by Sri Lanka’s navy for straying into Sri Lankan waters. On this issue, few in India acknowledge the fact that it pits Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils against one another. But like several others contentious issues that are sought to be swept below the carpet, this one too remains unresolved and often ignored over others.
It is still too early to make out what the final decision of New Delhi will be regarding the CHOGM. Either way, it will open several questions about the Indian foreign policy.