Once again, foreign policy objectives have been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. After Pakistan and Bangladesh, the surrender by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress to political opposition and a narrow regional view on Sri Lanka is not surprising, but it is disappointing all the same. For India, the two main objectives in its dealings with Sri Lanka are to ensure a just deal for that nation’s Tamil minority, and to protect its own interests in a region of strategic importance. The Prime Minister’s decision not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting came after weeks of pressure by Tamil Nadu political parties, including a resolution by the State Assembly. But if the primary reason for staying away is to express displeasure at Sri Lanka’s reluctance to address alleged atrocities against Tamil civilians during the final battles against the LTTE, it is doubtful if the decision will yield a different, more positive outcome. More likely is a further erosion of New Delhi's influence on the Rajapaksa regime to effect a just settlement of the Tamil question. It was thanks to India's prodding that Sri Lanka held elections in September to the Northern Provincial Council, convincingly won by the Tamil National Alliance. This significant milestone in ethnic reconciliation has given Tamil-dominated northern Sri Lanka a popularly elected administration for the first time. Unfortunately, instead of projecting this as an example of constructive diplomacy, the Congress allowed itself to be blackmailed by its present and potential allies in the State. Political parties in Tamil Nadu virtually ignored the NPC election, giving rise to the suspicion that it is not the interests of Tamils across the Palk Strait that they espouse but their own, as in this election season it is easier to flog the emotional overtones of the issue than respond to more pressing domestic concerns.
A decision by Dr. Singh to go to CHOGM and include a visit to Jaffna would have been a powerful reaffirmation of New Delhi's stakes and interests in the region. India must now deal with the consequences of its decision to stay away, both on the Tamil question and on its own larger interests. In Sri Lanka, it will affect the task of reconciliation considerably, including India’s efforts to ensure the 13th Amendment is not diluted or done away with entirely. It is to be hoped that both countries will guard against any adverse consequences on people-to-people links, and India will have to manage the huge strategic and diplomatic fallout. It is debatable if Sri Lanka will turn into a Chinese satellite in the Indian Ocean as is commonly feared, but clearly, the island will be looking for other allies in the region and beyond.