Attendance not important if it is against people’s sentiments, says Congress leader

Bowing to political pressure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will not be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) beginning on Friday in Colombo, highly placed government sources have said.

This came at the end of a day in which the government dropped ample hints that it was not necessary for the Prime Minister to attend every commonwealth conclave.

As etiquette demands that the hosts should be first informed about the decision, government officials declined to publicly announce who would represent India at the summit.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, who is anyway going to Colombo mid-week, will therefore represent India at CHOGM; there will be no stopover at Jaffna, capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, where most of the alleged human rights abuses occurred in the final stages of the conflict in 2009.

Meanwhile, a senior Congress functionary stressed on Saturday that it was not important for the Prime Minister to attend CHOGM, especially if it went against the sentiments of a section of the Indian population — the people of Tamil Nadu, in this case. For the Congress, with a difficult election ahead in 2014, the goodwill of potential alliance partners is of paramount concern.

Diplomats pointed out that over the last two decades, an Indian Prime Minister had participated in five of 10 CHOGMs. On four occasions, a Central Minister led the Indian delegation and at the previous CHOGM at Perth, Vice-President Hamid Ansari had represented the country.

“What we have followed is an approach akin to horses-for-courses. We focus on what is required in terms of our national interest, international obligations and foreign policy priorities. You would observe from the diversity of participants in the 10 summit meetings that we have followed what suits our national interests on each occasion,” explained Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin.

His colleague, Pavan Kapoor, pointed out that no CHOGM sees a cent-per-cent participation of all the invited Heads of Government.

Mr. Akbaruddin provided a third justification — ever since India joined the Commonwealth, no Indian Prime Minister had attended more than two summits staged abroad. As Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh had participated in the Kampala (2007) and Port of Spain (2009) CHOGMs. “What we are trying to give is a perspective,” he offered.

Mr. Kapoor pointed out that the CHOGM process would begin on Monday with a meeting of senior officials followed by an interaction among Foreign Ministers. CHOGM, as is its tradition, will have deliberations from Friday morning to Sunday afternoon. India had informed Colombo that senior diplomat Navtej Sarna and Mr. Kapoor will be at the officials’ meeting and Mr. Khurshid assisted by Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh at the pre-CHOGM Ministerial.

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