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Commonwealth Sri Lanka summit a conundrum for Singh

Should India’s prime minister attend, he could alienate ethnic Tamil voters in upcoming national elections, while missing it could diminish his country’s influence in the region. Samanth Subramanian reports

Sri Lankan workers spruce up a statue of Queen Victoria – which had previously been dumped in the backyard of Sri Lanka’s national museum for seven years –  in Colombo ahead of the November 15 - 17 Commonwealth summit. Ishara S Kodikara / AFP
Sri Lankan workers spruce up a statue of Queen Victoria – which had previously been dumped in the backyard of Sri Lanka’s national museum for seven years – in Colombo ahead of the November 15 - 17 Commonwealth summit. Ishara S Kodikara / AFP

NEW DELHI // Manmohan Singh finds himself in a dilemma over a Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka this month.

Should the prime minister attend, he could alienate ethnic Tamil voters in upcoming national elections, while missing it could diminish India’s influence in the region.

Colombo’s hosting of the meeting of the heads of state of Commonwealth nations from November 15-17 has been fiercely criticised by human rights groups and Tamil parties in India. If Mr Singh attends, critics say it would be an endorsement of a Sri Lankan government that has abused the rights of Tamils, who make up about 15 per cent of the population.

Sri Lanka is using the summit to gloss over charges that its army killed 40,000 Tamil civilians in 2009, in the final stages of a decades-long civil war, according to Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“Attending governments can either choose to look the other way, implicitly endorsing Sri Lankan abuses, or they can use this opportunity to support efforts for accountability and democracy in Sri Lanka,” Ms Ganguly told The National.

If leaders do choose to go, she said, they must raise the issue of human right at the summit.

India has already confirmed that its external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, will go to Colombo. But Mr Singh is under pressure from the state of Tamil Nadu to stay away, as the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, has promised to do.

His participation, said J Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and leader of the AIADMK party, would show support to a regime that “continues to deny equality and democratic freedom to the Tamil minority”.

The Tamil Nadu legislature last week also passed a resolution demanding that India seek Sri Lanka’s temporary suspension from the Commonwealth.

With national elections scheduled for early next summer, Mr Singh’s government is wary of alienating voters in Tamil Nadu, a state with a population of more than 70 million. His Congress party has of late fared poorly in elections in the state, and the support of regional parties such as AIADMK is crucial.

From a foreign policy perspective, Mr Singh finds himself pulled in a different direction altogether.

Colombo is treating the Commonwealth meeting as a prestige event, lavishing more than 3 billion Sri Lankan rupees (Dh84 million) on its preparations. A new expressway to the airport has been opened in time for the meeting. Some schools will be closed for the duration of the summit, and Colombo is being beautified. Roads and pavements are being repaired, bus stops renovated, and new lighting installed in parts of the city.

Sri Lanka has already indicated that it would treat a boycott by Mr Singh as a diplomatic snub, and has threatened to improve its relations with China and Pakistan at the cost of its traditionally close ties with India.

In an article in The Hindu newspaper, the Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka warned that a boycott would revive the opinion in Sri Lanka that “the island state is better served” along a “Beijing-Islamabad axis”.

An alienated Sri Lanka “can be a prickly porcupine which will then be regarded by India more as the US did Cuba,” Mr Jayatilleka wrote.

Prasad Kariyawasam, the Sri Lankan high commissioner to India, also said a boycott by Mr Singh might rebound upon India.

“If the prime minister of India does not come for this important multilateral meeting, the consequence is for whom?” Mr Kariyawasam told the CNN-IBN channel. “It will be those who would not participate who will be isolated, not those who are participating.”

Some Indian politicians are urging Mr Singh to go to Colombo, out of concerns that New Delhi could squander whatever political leverage it has with the Sri Lankan government.

The loss of this influence would hurt India when it comes to other issues, such as the fishing rights of Tamil Nadu’s fishermen in the waters between India and Sri Lanka.

“By not engaging with Sri Lanka, India will be losing out,” said Mr Khurshid, the foreign minister. “Even if it means raising the issue of Tamil fishermen, how can India do it without engaging the Lankan government?”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae