|Manmohan Singh (top), Mahinda Rajapaksa
New Delhi, Feb. 26: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will meet Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa next week, risking the ire of a potential domestic ally in the Lok Sabha polls three months after he backed out of a meet in Colombo under pressure from his party.
Singh and Rajapaksa will meet on the margins of the third Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, at a time the Congress is trying to stitch an alliance with the DMK.
“I can confirm that the Prime Minister will be meeting the President of Sri Lanka for a bilateral on the margins,” foreign secretary Sujatha Singh said today.
The meeting will take place days before a crucial vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on a US-sponsored resolution criticising Sri Lanka for its alleged war crimes during the three-decade-long battle between its army and Tamil rebels that ended only in 2009.
Singh will also meet Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala during his two-day trip to Myanmar starting next Monday, and will nudge his host nation to encourage more Indian investment as it opens up after decades in isolation.
But it is his meeting with Rajapaksa that holds the deepest political implications. The DMK and the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu are locked in competitive politics over their opposition to Rajapaksa’s government over its alleged war crimes against Tamils, ahead of the national election in April and May.
That domestic tug-of-war triggered competitive demands that Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils convicted for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi be released after the Supreme Court commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment.
But it is not only the DMK and the AIADMK that have asked India to risk its diplomatic and strategic interests by using Sri Lanka as a political punching bag.
Key sections within the Congress leadership — including defence minister A.K. Antony and finance minister P. Chidambaram — blocked Singh’s plans to visit Colombo last November for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) hosted by Sri Lanka.
Singh eventually pulled out of the meet, citing “domestic” occupations, but it was hidden from no one — least of all Sri Lanka — that the Prime Minister’s decision to skip the meet was taken under political pressure from his party.
India is yet to finalise its position on the resolution that the UNHRC will vote on in March, but officials accepted that New Delhi would find it hard not to support the criticism against Sri Lanka, especially in an election year.
Singh’s meeting with Rajapaksa, officials said, would allow India to communicate to Sri Lanka that independent of the position New Delhi may need to take at the UN because of political compulsions, it values its ties with Colombo, officials said.
“We want them to be clear that decisions we may need to take for domestic political reasons are not representative of our intent to engage and continue to engage and build relations with Sri Lanka,” a senior official said.
For India, Sri Lanka is a strategically critical neighbour increasingly wooed by China. India has also invested significantly in Sri Lanka in recent years — especially in the northern and eastern provinces that are home to most Tamils on the island nation.
But Singh has also invested a significant chunk of his personal diplomatic energy in strengthening ties with neighbours — even countries like Pakistan that India shares tense relations with.