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Head to Lanka,Mr PM

Or admit that your grand charter for foreign policy is meaningless.

November 8, 2013 12:31:52 am

Mallika Joseph

Or admit that your grand charter for foreign policy is meaningless.

In his recent address at the Annual Conclave of Indian Ambassadors/High Commissioners Abroad in Delhi,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh outlined what he believed were the five principles that have come to define Indian foreign policy. While acknowledging the attempts made to fundamentally reset Indian foreign policy over the last nine years,he emphasised the need to base it on India’s role and destiny in world affairs. Seen in this light,Indian foreign policy in the neighbourhood falls flat on its face. One fails to see how any of its recent policies with South Asian neighbours enhances India’s role and destiny. On the contrary,they have managed to create just the opposite effect.

For instance,take India’s engagement with Sri Lanka,or more particularly,the recent dithering over the prime minister’s participation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo. With the CHOGM being hosted in Asia after a gap of 24 years,and in the South Asian neighbourhood after 30 years,it should be an opportunity for India to showcase its power and influence in the region and within the Commonwealth. Instead,the prime minister’s very participation is clouded with uncertainty.

If developments in Sri Lanka cause concern in India then it should plan to raise these concerns at the CHOGM,at the appropriate time. It could also wield its influence on the international body and urge it to address the issue accordingly. Contemplating not attending the meet strengthens one,if not a combination,of the following arguments.

First,India is perhaps ill-prepared to attend the CHOGM and has no specific agenda on using the occasion. Forget Sri Lanka,doesn’t India see any advantage at all in this meeting to project its “role and destiny in world affairs”? This is the Asian century,with extra-regional powers realigning their policy for a “pivot to Asia”. As one of the oldest civilisations and powers in the region,it is surprising that India does not see an opportunity in the Commonwealth meet to lay out its vision for the region and continent.

Second,maybe India does not have the influence within the Commonwealth to shape the opinion and perceptions of its leaders. If it was indeed confident of its position within the Commonwealth,it would have seized this opportunity to voice its concerns,if any,on the Sri Lankan situation. To presume that its absence at the meeting would spur other heads of the Commonwealth to raise their voices against Sri Lanka is asking too much. What Indian presence cannot achieve,Indian absence definitely cannot.

Third,Indian concerns on Sri Lanka may not be quite as significant as it projects them to be. If they were,the upcoming meet would be an opportunity to spell them out and get Commonwealth leaders to work towards addressing the situation. India would have prepared itself and mobilised support among other Commonwealth heads visiting Sri Lanka. Instead,the Indian prime minister considers skipping the meeting.

Delhi should stop using protests in Tamil Nadu as a smokescreen to conceal its lack of a coherent Sri Lanka policy or its inability to balance foreign policy with domestic diktats; it appears as shallow as Tamil Nadu’s concerns. How else does one explain the orchestrated protests in Tamil Nadu (especially the protests among the student community in a state which has had no history of political demonstration in recent decades) on the eve of international events,whether it is the human rights vote in Geneva or the upcoming CHOGM?

Such sporadic displays of concern,along with abuse of visiting Sri Lankan pilgrims and sports persons,actually does more harm to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. If Tamil Nadu is serious about the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils,it would do well to keep its engagement sustained,substantial and sincere.

While the CHOGM does provide space for engagement with Sri Lanka,the meeting is not about Sri Lanka. So for India,the meet should not be about Sri Lanka or restricted by it. It should be about Indian foreign policy — its policy in the neighbourhood,its vision for the region,and how India can use forums such as the CHOGM to demonstrate its global influence and leadership. It is time to transition from a “hedging power” to a “bridging power.”

Returning to the prime minister’s recent address at the conclave in Delhi,he said: “our foreign policy is not defined merely by our interests,but also by the values which are very dear to our people. India’s experiment of pursuing economic development within the framework of a plural,secular and liberal democracy has inspired people around the world and should continue to do so.”

Therefore,Mr Prime Minister,please pack your bags for the CHOGM. This is the kind of message that India need to advance and advocate,and no better place than the upcoming CHOGM meeting.

The writer is executive director,Regional Centre for Strategic Studies,Colombo

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