NEW DELHI: Whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh goes to Sri Lanka for CHOGM in mid-November, the issue has seen the government and the Congress ranged on opposite sides of the argument.
The ruling party says that attending the CHOGM summit with Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa would only bolster the island nation\'s intransigence against devolution of powers to Tamil areas. All top ministers of Congress from Tamil Nadu, led by finance minister P Chidambaram, have opposed the PM\'s visit for CHOGM. The Congress bloc argues that Lanka has not implemented the devolution of powers under the 13th amendment. The regional council has still not been given powers to maintain law and order. Also, Lanka is acting tough and arresting Indian fishermen despite several protests. \"If the PM still goes to Lanka, it would only bolster Lanka into acting tougher,\" a leader said.
On the other hand, government - primarily MEA and PMO - says the PM should go to Lanka in national interest. A strong message has come from C V Wigneswaran, the new TNA chief minister of Lanka\'s northern provincial council. In a recent message to the Indian government, he has asked that Singh should attend CHOGM, and he could use the opportunity to send the message he needs to. This was the first time a Tamil party has been allowed to form a provincial government by Colombo. On his return from Lanka, foreign minister Salman Khurshid has also advised that Indian participation at the CHOGM would be in New Delhi\'s interest.
The government has reasons to back the PM\'s trip. First, CHOGM is a multilateral meeting, and India is a founding member of the Commonwealth. CHOGM would be the first major international meeting at the heads of government level which is being hosted by Sri Lanka - one of India\'s most important neighbours - that is politically and strategically on the same page. Colombo is a lynchpin of New Delhi\'s Indian Ocean Region (IOR) strategy. MEA has said the heads of state of all major Commonwealth countries, including the UK and Australia, will be there. Only Canada, who has empathy for the Tamil cause, will boycott the summit.
In the run-up to CHOGM, MEA has argued, the Rajapaksa government has taken important political steps on Indian request. This included holding elections in the Northern Province and putting on hold its plans to dilute the provisions of the 13th amendment. It has implemented several LLRC recommendations and even gave access to the UN Human Rights Commissioner in August.
If India downgrades its participation in CHOGM, India runs the risk of \"losing\" Lanka to the likes of China, who is quick to exploit the opportunity to expand its strategic footprint into IOR. China built Hambantota port, but India dominates strategic ground there. Even Pakistan, despite its limited resources, has been engaging Colombo with alacrity, primarily to take up the space New Delhi would be ceding to Islamabad.
India would alienate the Lankan government and public opinion, reducing its leverage, including for issues important to Tamil Nadu like fishermen\'s release, and pushing national reconciliation in that country. India would not be able to prevent dilution of the 13th Amendment. India-Lanka economic and defence cooperation would be downgraded. The Rajapaksa government could undermine the northern provincial council. If the PM does not go, India could be seen to be on the side of the radical elements who keep the LTTE dream alive as the Tamil diaspora. Significantly, Indian fishermen would be at the mercy of Lankan security forces and India would not be able to influence them.
But if the PM does go, India would enhance its leverage with Lankan government and influence political developments in that country. Singh could even go to Jaffna to demonstrate Indian support to the provincial government. It would help India to put behind it the bad blood with Lanka that grew after India voted against it at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March, 2013.
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