In calling for a “complete boycott” of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo next month, the Tamil Nadu government has lost a great opportunity to help calibrate India’s Sri Lanka policy. For starters, it seems unlikely that New Delhi will stay away from CHOGM: with President Mahinda Rajapaksa finally coming through on his promise to hold the Northern Provincial Council elections, it would be unwise for India to disengage with his government at this critical juncture. The NPC election was a legitimate exercise that saw the Tamil National Alliance emerge victorious. India should now insist on Colombo devolving power to the Council in line with the 13th Amendment. Given the Rajapaksa regime’s reluctance to hand over policing and land acquisition powers to the NPC, the devolution process is going to be difficult and protracted. Rather than boycotting CHOGM — and thus giving Colombo a big stick to beat down the legitimate aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils — India must continue to channel its diplomatic energies towards a constitutional settlement. The Tamil Nadu government and Legislative Assembly should have encouraged the Centre to facilitate such an outcome.
With each passing episode that requires it to take a tough decision on Sri Lanka — be it attending CHOGM or voting against the regime at the U.N. Human Rights Council — New Delhi must wonder why it has been drawn to a corner. The United Progressive Alliance has itself to blame after it sheltered the Rajapaksa government through the final stages of its war against the LTTE and immediately thereafter, without demanding any responsibility for post-war reconstruction in return. With the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam as a key coalition ally then, the Congress could well have foreseen the perils of dancing dangerously close to Colombo. Now the government finds itself battered by populism in Tamil Nadu ahead of the general election, with little wiggle room for constructive diplomacy. CHOGM will not be the last balancing act that the UPA will have to pull before heading to the polls — in March next year, the UNHRC will likely discuss and vote on Sri Lanka’s dismal human rights record, drawing attention to India’s policies again. For now, the Centre has no option but to bite the bullet. Whether political parties in India and Sri Lanka want it to stay away from the Commonwealth summit, New Delhi should be aware that its continued engagement with Colombo is indispensable to a sustainable and fair settlement of the Tamil question.