By R Hariharan –
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cancelled his Sri Lanka visit for the Commonwealth summit that concluded last week due to political pressure from Tamil parties. Is it a serious diplomatic error on the part of the UPA Government? Should regional parties decide India’s foreign policy? How will it impact the India-Sri Lanka ties?
Why did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh choose to stay away from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that concluded last week in Colombo? Was it a gesture to save the political fortunes of the Congress in Tamil Nadu after a vigorous campaign against CHOGM was whipped up? Was it an attempt to register India’s solidarity with international protests against Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes and human rights violations during the Eelam War? Or, was it to show his unhappiness at President Mahinda Rajapaksa not keeping up his promises to implement the 13th Amendment in full and resume the political process with Tamils? There are no answers, only deafening silence.
None of these reasons seem to have figured in the Prime Minister’s letter informing Rajapaksa of his decision to stay away from CHOGM. It would be unfair to hold the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responsible for the CHOGM mess; the MEA was clear that India should attend the meeting. In fact, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s vocal support for attending CHOGM drew protests from fringe elements in Tamil Nadu. So not attending the meeting was clearly a decision of the Prime Minister, regardless of the speculation on how it came about.
However, CHOGM is not the issue. It is perhaps the most inconsequential grouping, a colonial club where Britain can reminisce on how the sun set on the empire without feeling guilty about it. Only 27 heads of governments of 53 member-countries chose to attend the Colombo meeting. This is not unusual; but still it provides an opportunity to build leadership relations through informal meetings and exchange views on critical issues.
There are two reasons why Indian participation in CHOGM became such a serious political issue. One is because Sri Lanka is hosting it. Internationally, there is a campaign going on against Sri Lanka ever since allegations of war crimes and human rights violations started piling up after the Eelam War ended in 2009. Tamil population had been the victims and many feel the international community must ensure justice is done to them. This has kindled a lot of sympathy in many countries, including Australia, Britain and Canada, where sizeable Sri Lanka Tamil diaspora lives, as well as in Tamil Nadu. Rajapaksa’s aim in hosting the meeting was to refurbish his bruised international image. Chairing the international body would also boost his national image, besides providing an opportunity to showcase Sri Lanka’s rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in the war-torn areas. It was for these reasons that his detractors had been against holding the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka.
The other reason is the Sri Lankan Tamil issue has become a foil in the turf war between Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and the aging DMK leader M Karunanidhi. Almost all political parties in Tamil Nadu, including the Congress and the BJP, started asking New Delhi to bring Sri Lanka to book ever since war crimes allegations started surfacing at the end of Eelam War in 2009. The series of Channel 4 videos depicting gruesome scenes of atrocity added fuel to the fire. But well before all this, it was Jayalalithaa who resurrected the Sri Lankan Tamil issue from political margins and used it to rally support for the ADMK in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and later to rout the DMK in the Assembly elections. In the process, she has marshalled the frustration of Tamils at India’s seeming ineffectiveness to take Sri Lanka to task for its insensitivity to the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils and its refusal to investigate alleged war crimes. The Chief Minister had been to channelising these sentiments into protests against Sri Lanka and the Centre in a sustained campaign.
Karunanidhi, as a coalition partner of the UPA, had influenced India’s Sri Lanka policy during the crucial days of Eelam war. As Tamil Nadu’s protests against the Centre gathered momentum, the ageing leader has been desperately trying to distance himself from his past role in Centre’s Sri Lanka policy. He has been finding it difficult to manage it ever since Jayalalithaa took the lead to trigger protests and initiate a series of resolutions against Sri Lanka in the State Assembly.
Obviously, the Tamil Nadu resolutions on Sri Lanka trespass into the Centre’s domain. But to be pragmatic, they need to be contexualised in the political fisticuff going on in the State as well as in the growing ability of regional satraps to decide the fate of coalitions at the Centre. Neither of these influences can be wished away.
Can the nation afford to allow its foreign policy to be subjected to regional pressures when there are larger strategic security and trade interests at stake? Of course not; but the Tamil issue has been considered an important component of India’s Sri Lanka policy. The signing of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987 and India’s military intervention in the island nation between 1987 and 1990 illustrate how the Tamil issue has become interwoven in the India-Sri Lanka strategic security calculus. So, the Sri Lanka Tamil issue, which has local impact, has come to impinge upon India’s relations with Sri Lanka. The Centre cannot allow its Sri Lanka policy decisions to be subjected to vagaries of the State’s prescription. It is the responsibility of a national leadership. And in handling the CHOGM question this seems to have been ignored.
The problem is more with the national decision-making process than with political management. There are wheels within wheels that seem to operate New Delhi’s policy-making process on almost all national issues. Many of them do not operate solely in national interest. And coalition compulsion is only one of them. The national leadership has to strategise ways of handling it in States like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal which have sibling interests in neighbouring countries.
However, where national interest dictates, the Central leadership has a responsibility to assert itself. It has to demonstrate it is in control of its policies. Of course, this has to be done while reassuring the people how it proposes to address the concerns of the State. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister seems to have a serious problem in asserting his role. This is further compounded by his inability to articulate the policy through a transparent and interactive process. He should regularly meet the Press, and visit States to explain policy decisions. But unfortunately, this has not been his style. This is applicable not only to Manmohan Singh but also the entire political leadership. As a result, the present decision-making process is regarded as hesitant and ponderous, exuding uncertainty.
Even the inadequate and opaque articulation of the national leadership’s decision is usually belated. It is dished out after prolonged public agitation in terse messages lacking courage of conviction. Witnessing Tamil Nadu’ growing concern for the plight of war-affected Sri Lankan Tamils for four years, it is surprising that the Prime Minister has not visited the State to tell people how he plans to attend their concerns.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has demonstrated how to make the best use of a difficult decision. He chose to attend CHOGM in the face of opposition. But by speaking and writing at length on what he proposes to do in Sri Lanka, he turned the decision to his advantage. After going to Colombo and during his meeting with President Rajapaksa, he did not shy away from explaining Britain’s concerns and how constructively it can contribute to ease the situation.
The Chinese angle
The India-Sri Lanka relationship is also being tested due to the ever-increasing Chinese presence in Colombo. China has shown keen interest in expanding its strategic base in Sri Lanka, obviously to protect its growing interests in the Indian Ocean region as well as to gain a foothold close to India’s peninsular south.
Of course, China has been having cordial relationship with Sri Lanka for long. But Beijing established itself more firmly by meeting Colombo’s wartime requirements for armaments and military equipment after Delhi “let down” its southern neighbour due to domestic compulsions. China is reported to have provided $1.8 billion worth of arms to Sri Lanka. China’s Poly Technologies is estimated to have supplied $37.6 million worth of ammunition and ordnance for the army and navy in 2007. More importantly, China provides diplomatic support for Sri Lanka at the United Nations. China has now become a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and it could be useful when Sri Lanka is again hauled up in March 2014 on implementation of the earlier UNHRC resolution seeking Sri Lanka’s accountability for alleged human rights aberrations.
President Rajapaksa has visited China six times since coming to power in 2005. After the Eelam War ended, there had been steady increase in exchanges between the two countries at governmental, military and political levels. During Rajapaksa’s meeting with President Xi Jinping in May 2013, the two countries agreed to upgrade their relations to a “strategic and cooperative partnership”.
According to media reports, under the “new consensus, the two countries will maintain high-level exchanges, enhance political communication, and support each other’s efforts in safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Clearly, China is going all out to build a well rounded strategic relationship with Sri Lanka.
As per the 2012 report of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Finance and Planning, China has emerged as the largest development aid provider to Sri Lanka last year with a commitment of $1.05 billion, while India came second with over $700 million aid. The total assistance extended by China between 1971 and 2012 was $5.05 billion of which $4.76 billion, representing around 94 per cent, was extended during the last eight-years from 2005 to 2012. As against this, India extended a total assistance of $1.45 billion between 2007 and 2012. Out of this amount, $1.12 billion was loan and 326 million was grant.
Chinese companies are involved in a number of infrastructure, communications and port development projects of strategic importance. These include the Hambantota port project and the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport near Hambantota (completed in March 2013). China has helped make the Colombo Port complex one of the biggest in the world by increasing its container terminal capacity to 2.4 million TEU (20-foot equivalent units). Of strategic interest are China’s deals to build telecommunication and information technology networks in Sri Lanka. Chinese satellite will be providing communication support to Sri Lanka. And China’s Beidou GPS navigation system will shortly become operational in the island nation.
Sri Lanka is negotiating with China to finalise a FTA (free trade area). The Deputy International Trade Representative of the Commerce Ministry of China, Yu Jianhua, who visited Sri Lanka last month, expected “the preparatory process of the FTA to be completed by December this year”. In his view, the FTA was not only for trade “but something beyond, to institutionalise our strategic cooperation partnership as mandated by the leaders of both countries”.
Sri Lanka had been tempting Chinese investors, saying its existing FTA with India could facilitate them to export goods to India on liberal terms. And when Sri Lanka-China FTA is signed, we can expect China to take full advantage of it to flood Indian markets. Are we ready to face these forays from China on strategic and trade fronts?
The absence of the Indian Prime Minister at CHOGM is likely to add to Sri Lanka’s cup of bitterness after India voted in favour of the US resolution at the UNHRC meeting in March 2012 and again a year later. And when the issue comes up once more at the UNHRC in March 2014, India will be in the thrall of parliamentary elections. So, we can expect an action replay of the CHOGM ‘crisis’ all over again. That could make India’s engagement with Sri Lanka even more brittle. How does the Government propose to protect India’s national interests in such an environment is the moot question.
*The writer is a retired MI officer associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He served as the Head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. Version of this article appeared in The Pioneer November 24, 2013.