Political pressure mounts against visit

Less than a fortnight ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s plans to attend the high-profile conclave remain uncertain amid signs of pressure mounting from a section of the Congress.

Though hotel rooms have been booked and contingency arrangements are in place for Dr. Singh, highly placed diplomatic sources told The Hindu that a decision had not yet been made.

Minister of State for Environment Jayanthi Natarajan has become the latest Congress leader to call on the Prime Minister to stay away from CHOGM, in a letter party sources say was sent on November 5. Party heavyweights Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had argued, at a meeting of the Congress Core Group, against Dr. Singh’s proposed visit.

Shipping Minister G.K. Vasan and Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V. Narayanasamy have also taken this position.

India has never stayed away from a CHOGM summit in the past.

Ms. Natarajan’s letter, the sources said, argued that staying away from the summit would make clear to Sri Lanka India’s opposition to human rights violations alleged to have taken place during and after the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The letter also noted that India had twice voted against Sri Lanka on rights issues on international fora.

Ms. Natarajan was not immediately available for comment.

Dr. Singh’s proposed visit has pitted Congress politicians, sensitive to ethnic sentiment, against the foreign policy establishment. The Ministry of External Affairs has recommended that Dr. Singh attend the conclave, saying boycotting it would damage India’s relationship with a strategically vital neighbour.

It also has the support of some Congress leaders in Tamil Nadu, who believe that boycotting the summit would hurt the interests of ethnic Tamils in that country in the long run.

Government sources said the idea of sending a high-level representative, like Vice-President Hamid Ansari, had also been considered. A senior official of the Ministry of External Affairs, however, said it had not gained traction within the government. “If India’s Prime Minister stays away on a point of principle, it will not make sense to waive that principle by sending someone else,” he said.

Experts in New Delhi have largely been supportive of the Prime Minister visiting Sri Lanka. “We cannot simply boycott a neighbour like Sri Lanka,” said security analyst Ajai Sahni. “This will only ensure we are unable to exercise any positive influence there, even in favour of the Tamils.”

More In: National | News