PM’s absence from CHOGM

Men, Matters & Memories
M L Kotru
The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, is already a day old as you read this. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, probably the most senior of the Commonwealth leaders, who should normally have led India at the summit, was a notable absentee. His External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, occupied his place at the high table much to the glee of the Dravidian parties of Tamilnadu which had sought a total Indian boycott of the 53-nation conference.
The AIDMK and DMK having successfully stopped the Prime Minister from attending the meeting feigned their continuing anger even over Salman Khurshid’s presence. Sri Lanka, left to the Tamilian politicos of Tamilnadu, shouldn’t at all have been allowed to host the conference, they would appear to suggest. Indeed, they said as much. It did not matter to them that Sri Lanka is a free country, situated just across the tiny sea way separating it from India, and the member of the Commonwealth club on its own. It also didn’t matter to them that heads of government would be meeting in a volatile region with serious bearing on Indian interest. The Dravidian parties would have served the Sri Lankan Tamil cause better by encouraging Sri Lanka to host the summit which traditionally discusses issues ranging from democracy, good governance, gender equality, and human rights to multilateral trade and international peace and security. It was an ideal forum for India to seek support for issues pertaining to the security and welfare of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka’s northern province, which ostensibly is the principal cause of the Dravidian parties’ anger against Colombo.
Given their assumed sense of rage over the Sri Lankan Government’s gross abuse of the Tamil minority of their island country, the Dravidian parties are unwilling to do some heart-searching on their own, to recall their respective positions during the various stages of the terror-backed movement for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.
It was India, under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership, which championed the cause of the Island’s Tamils and got the Lankan government to devolve extensive powers to them  under the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Rajiv paid for his efforts with his life, assassinated by the psychopathic agents (as recalled by the senior Indian diplomat, a Tamil incidentally, Mr. G. Parthasarthy) of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the boss of the, terrorist outfit, the LTTE.
Rajiv Gandhi’s efforts, as Parthasarthy has noted, succeeded with the provincial polls held last month producing a government led by the formerly separatist Tamil National Alliance, with Justice Wigneswaran assuming office of the elected Tamil Chief Minister of the Sri Lankan Northern province. In fact Mr. Wigneswaran had sent an invitation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit the province during his visit to Sri Lanka for the CHOGM meeting. Unfortunately, this has not materialized. A high profile visit to Jaffna by Dr. Singh would have enabled India to reassure the Tamil population there of its commitment to their security and welfare and to get a better idea of how it can fine tune and augment its massive aid programme involving reconstruction of 50,000 houses, provision of medical facilities, agri-assitance and construction and upgrading of rail lines, the Kankesanthurai port and the Palely airport.
Had he attended the meeting personally Prime Minister Singh would have been able to make an effective appeal that Lanka fulfill its promises and fully devolve powers to the newly elected Chief Minister. The hands of countries like Australia, the UK and New Zealand and others would have been strengthened at the meeting to push for measures to bring to justice those guilty of excesses during the last days of the civil was in the island country.
By not attending–Salman Khurshid I am afraid will not carry the weight the Prime Minister would have– Nawaz Sharif and others, who have no interest in the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, will have a field day projecting themselves as Sri Lanka’s genuine well-wishers. Manmohan Singh’s absence at the meeting is bound to give Pakistan and China an opportunity to further deepen their relations with Sri Lanka at India’s expense. The two countries have already expanded their footprint in the country in recent years, a development that does not bode well for India. Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean region is coveted by several countries, making it all the more important for India not to lose any more ground in terms of forging a close cooperative relationship.
China made inroads into Sri Lanka’s strategic infrastructure sector some ten years ago. The process has gained momentum after the Tamil terrorists collapse in May 2009 with the help of the arms supplied by China. The Chinese official news agency Xinhua has reported that 42 companies were among the 83 foreign participants in the trade exhibition “Reflection of Sri Lanka” being held on the sidelines of the CHOGM. In comparison only 21 Indian companies are there even as India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner. India has had a flourishing FTA with Sri Lanka since 1996 that helped bilateral trade to grow from $600 million in 2000 to $ 5 billion in 2012.
But China in addition to forging defence link-ups is also looking at increasing its trade with Sri Lanka after the FTA. China has stepped in ever since the Tamil sentiment crept into the bilateral India-Sri Lanka ties. More interestingly for the Chinese, Sri Lanka’s strategic location has turned out to be a boon.
Already the two are committed to some form of cooperation in the field of defence, Sri Lanka having already offered port facilities to the Chinese Navy.
With Pakistan also chipping into the field, the naval endeavour would seem to be part of the ring that Beijing is throwing round India. It has already secured port facilities for its Navy in Bangladesh with Myanmar more than willing to give a helping hand. Consider this in conjunction with the massive road link-up between China’s Xinjiang province and the Gwadar port (which Beijing has built) in the Balochistan province of Pakistan. The 2000-mile road link passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. This apart, the growing ties between China and Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka and Pakistan do not augur particularly well for India. Sri Lanka has awarded infrastructure works worth over $ four billion to China; it has offered oil blocks to Beijing. A Chinese company owns 85% of the $ 500 million container terminal in Colombo and lot more is in the pipeline. One hopes the Jayalalithas and Karunanidhis of the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu will realize that political one upmanship cannot always be a paying proposition.


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