Lankadahan of PM neighbour policy Pro-talks line of 9 years defeated

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By CHARU SUDAN KASTURI
  • Published 11.11.13
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New Delhi, Nov. 10: Flying at over 30,000 feet on his way back from St Petersburg in early September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had articulated why he felt the need to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif later that month despite flaring border tensions.

“I have always maintained that we can choose our friends but we have no choice with regard to our neighbours,” Singh told reporters in his typically rasping voice, outlining his foreign policy doctrine of engaging even at the highest level of government with neighbours — difficult ones too.

That doctrine — which he has managed to enforce, mostly, over the past nine years in office — today lies in tatters.

India on Sunday formally told Sri Lanka that the Prime Minister will not attend next week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, after the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress core group vetoed the visit on Friday.

The Indian high commission in Colombo delivered a letter from Singh to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa informing him that external affairs minister Salman Khurshid would lead India’s delegation at the CHOGM that is starting November 15.

Singh’s advisers and the external affairs ministry were convinced it was crucial for the Prime Minister to travel to Colombo both for New Delhi’s strategic interests and to maintain India’s leverage with Sri Lanka over its concerns for Tamils in the island nation.

The Prime Minister argued for the strategic and diplomatic need to make the journey to Colombo at the Congress meeting on Friday, officials said.

But senior cabinet ministers P. Chidambaram and A.K. Antony opposed Singh’s visit within the core group, while 2,000km away in Chennai, all political parties demanded that India boycott the CHOGM.

Congress fears of a political backlash in Tamil Nadu in the coming 2014 Lok Sabha polls won the day, but India’s diplomatic community is struggling to confront the uncomfortable reality that the Prime Minister’s doctrine is not paramount in directing the nation’s foreign policy.

“The Congress is doing to the Prime Minister’s doctrine what Rahul Gandhi did to the government’s ordinance on criminal politicians,” a senior diplomat told The Telegraph, one of many who articulated a sense of helpless despair, referring to Rahul’s statement describing the ordinance as “nonsense” and declaring that it should be torn up.

The Tamil Nadu Assembly had last month passed a resolution demanding that India boycott the CHOGM completely, in opposition to Rajapaksa’s alleged anti-Tamil policies.

But through the past nine years, Singh has repeatedly stressed on talks — as opposed to not talking — as the route to a détente.

Baatcheet karne ke liye kisiko koi eitraj nahin hona chahiye (There should be no problem in talking with someone),” Singh had said in August 2006, when asked whether he would meet then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in Havana on the margins of a Non-Aligned Movement meet.

When Singh visited China in October, he stressed on his belief that the region — and India and China as neighbours — had a “shared destiny” that meant they had to work together despite border differences.

Under pressure from the Congress, the Prime Minister appeared to backtrack from his talks-at-any-cost approach with Pakistan in 2009, after a meet with then Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani where the two agreed not to hold dialogue hostage to terrorism.

But artfully, the Prime Minister maintained his policy — not rushing forward for a composite dialogue with Pakistan, or a visit to his birthplace there, but at the same time always maintaining communication with the leadership in Islamabad.

He met Sharif in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York despite opposition from a belligerent BJP.

Singh wanted to communicate both his government’s concerns to Pakistan, and its willingness to work with Islamabad if it gave up on terrorism directed against India.

By travelling to Colombo, Singh would have had the opportunity to offer Rajapaksa the carrot of friendly relations in exchange for releasing Indian fishermen and avoiding anti-Tamil policies, officials said.

Officials argue that Singh — by going to Colombo — could also have met the newly elected Tamil chief minister of the island’s Northern Province who has invited Singh to Jaffna, the provincial capital.

By skipping the visit, Singh has given his party the opportunity to forge fresh alliances with parties in Tamil Nadu ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the process, he has had to compromise on his own foreign policy doctrine.

why britain won’t boycott

Prince Charles talks to a woman with a baby outside a Mumbai church on Sunday. Accompanied by wife Camilla on a nine-day trip to India, Charles will leave for Sri Lanka on November 14 for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Britain has said that while it understands Canada’s boycott of the meeting and Manmohan Singh’s decision to stay away, it will not follow suit. “If we were to stay away from this meeting in Sri Lanka next week, it would damage the Commonwealth without changing things positively in Sri Lanka,” foreign secretary William Hague said on Sunday. Prime Minister David Cameron, who Hague said would become the first foreign head of government since Lanka’s independence to visit the country’s mostly Tamil north, revealed that he had watched No Fire Zone and found it to be “one of the most chilling documentaries I’ve watched”. The film features footage of apparent war crimes shot by both Tamil witnesses and government soldiers. Cameron promised to push for an independent investigation into the alleged war crimes during his meeting with Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa. (AFP)