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The empty gesture

On Sri Lanka,electoral considerations trumped diplomacy.

Written by T P Sreenivasan |
November 20, 2013 12:13:45 am

British diplomats joke that the inelegant acronym,CHOGM,stands for “Chaps on Holiday on Government Money”. Some also say that wealth is the only thing which is not common in the Commonwealth. In fact,after the days of colonialism and apartheid,the Commonwealth has been an organisation in search of an agenda. It duplicates the work of the United Nations in various ways,but since it has no unifying thread other than memories,the Commonwealth does not even endeavour to take a position of its own in the UN. It tried to identify certain issues in which the Commonwealth had a special talent,such as problems of small and island states. But these have not particularly benefited from the Commonwealth.

India,therefore,had nothing to lose from the prime minister skipping the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet,and it was not for the first time that an Indian prime minister missed such an event. Charan Singh did not find it worthwhile to attend the Lusaka CHOGM either. Nobody,except the Indian delegation,shed tears for the absence of the Indian prime minister. Even the minister of external affairs could have spent his time more productively in neighbouring Maldives.

On the bilateral front,it is not even certain that President Rajapaksa has time for the prime minister of the biggest democracy in the world. Intoxicated by liberation from the threat of Prabhakaran and his LTTE,the president talks of one Sinhala nation with no minorities. In his vision of Sri Lanka,neither the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene agreement nor the 13th Amendment has any place. To him,India is only a destination for Buddhist pilgrimage. In his eyes,India’s only role in Sri Lanka was to moderate the belligerence of the LTTE. With the LTTE gone,India has no teeth and Rajapaksa would rather deal directly with the Tamils than with their patrons in India.

The irony is that even though the Indian prime minister’s attending the CHOGM was not important and he may not have been welcome to pay a bilateral visit to Colombo at this juncture,the decision to cancel a multilateral engagement for a bilateral reason betrayed several weaknesses in foreign policy decisionmaking. First of all,the Centre underestimated the depth of feeling that the approaching elections have forced Tamil politicians to demonstrate. The link to the elections is evident because the same politicians were silent during the war,when Tamils faced brutalities in Sri Lanka. India’s opinion was very relevant to the choice of Colombo as the venue for the CHOGM. Having had to shift its position in Geneva several times,New Delhi should have anticipated another embarrassment and seen to it that the CHOGM was moved out of Colombo. With the Commonwealth’s focus on democracy and human rights,we could have gathered enough support to shift the venue.

The unseemly sight of Tamil Nadu holding the nation’s foreign policy hostage does India no credit internationally. Multilateral diplomacy has enough precedent of treating the venue of a conference as neutral ground,which should have been explained to the Tamils. When Fidel Castro or Yasser Arafat travelled to New York to attend the UN sessions,even the most vociferous of their followers did not object to it as reflective of fraternisation with the US. To accept the argument that,by boycotting the CHOGM,India is registering some kind of displeasure with the Sri Lankan government is to disregard the conventions of multilateral behaviour. In foreign policy,the Centre should be the final arbiter,even if the border states are consulted on certain matters that concern them.

We have short memories,but the archives in Delhi must have the details of what Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi accomplished at the Melbourne CHOGM,soon after the military coup against the Fiji Indians. For the Fijian chiefs who had masterminded the coup,their link with the Commonwealth was vital and it was that very link that Rajiv Gandhi severed. He met the heads of many of the delegations in Melbourne and stressed that Fiji should be expelled from the Commonwealth on account of its racist constitution,imposed by a military government. India’s success helped democracy return to Fiji within a very short time. In the case of Sri Lanka,we could have accomplished something similar.

International public opinion is already agitated over the war crimes of Sri Lanka and initiatives within the Commonwealth would have served the Tamil cause better. Before the meet,Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma had hinted that the international body would “assist” Sri Lanka in setting up a national inquiry on torture to investigate all charges,starting from 2009. This was a proposal with immense possibilities. The Indian prime minister could have strengthened the proposal and gained more for Tamils in Sri Lanka and India than the empty gesture of his absence has accomplished. Electoral exigencies should not blind us to the potential of diplomacy,which India has exploited fully in the past.

The writer,a former ambassador and governor for India of the IAEA,is executive vice-chairman,Kerala State Higher Education Council.

express@expressindia.com

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