India-Sri Lanka: Of strategic ties and domestic pressure

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is scheduled to start on 15 November in Colombo. In the normal course, these events—notwithstanding the fanfare in the host country—are staid affairs. Leaders make solemn speeches, resolve to do important things, and return to their countries. This time, the event has sparked a mini storm in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s participation is still not confirmed. The divisions with the government are apparent. The ministry of external affairs wants the Prime Minister to go to Colombo; some of his ministers and leaders of various political parties are vehemently opposed to his visit and have exerted considerable pressure on him on this count.
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
The Prime Minister should attend the summit. There are good reasons for him to do so.
In South Asia at least, perceptions are driving what should otherwise be a rational decision. On the one hand, the Union government is under severe pressure from political parties in Tamil Nadu not to attend the summit. On the other hand, for Sri Lanka the non-attendance of the Indian Prime Minister will be a snub to the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
Two issues are worth pointing out here. One, Sri Lanka, for all the ups and downs in our relations with that country, is a friendly neighbour that deserves the minimum courtesy of not being subjected to political winds emanating from Tamil Nadu. Unlike domestic political compulsions, be it the passage of laws in Parliament or state governments haggling for central resources, foreign policy is one area where the country as a whole is affected. There can be no separate foreign policy for Tamil Nadu. In fact, any such “regionalization” of issues of national importance is fraught with danger. Second, there are indeed genuine concerns about the treatment and rehabilitation of Tamils in Sri Lanka especially in the years since the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
The question that needs answering is this: Can India, by snubbing the Sri Lankan government, hope to do anything for the Sri Lankan Tamils? The answer is a clear no. What our political parties, especially those from Tamil Nadu, forget is that Sri Lanka is an independent country and not an appendage of India. India’s ability to influence domestic events there—particularly on the Tamil issue—depends on maintaining friendly ties with the government there. The illusion being harboured currently is that any Indian disapproval will somehow move or propel the international community to act against the Rajapaksa government. This is unlikely for two reasons. One, multilateral efforts to censure any government accused of human rights violations are notoriously fickle. There are good examples why this does not work. In a far more extreme case, that of apartheid in South Africa, a global opprobrium ensued in the 1980s. Sanctions, feeble as they were, did nothing. In the end, it was the then South African government that ended apartheid. There is, of course, no question of comparing the two situations. The second, related, point is Sri Lanka is not dependent on India’s economic help—the most substantial leverage that any country can have over a partner. China is a key investor in Sri Lanka. And that relationship is now on the verge of being transformed into full political backing for the government of that country. This escapes most political leaders and parties in India.
There was, to be sure, horrific violence against unarmed, non-combatant, Sri Lankan Tamils at the end of the war against the LTTE. Since then, the pace of redeveloping the Northern Province, home to the bulk of Tamils, has lagged. Reports also suggest that niggardly treatment of Tamils continues. These are certainly issues that India needs to engage on with the Sri Lankan government in a forceful manner. But the mode of doing that has to be within the framework of normal bilateral ties. India’s efforts on this score have been sporadic and knee jerk. That has been the normal state of affairs of Indian diplomacy under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments. If at all, leaders from Tamil Nadu are keen to change things, they need to hold the UPA accountable on that. They have not done that, so far.