If it boycotts the CHOGM summit, New Delhi will alienate Sri Lanka and erode the progress it has made in nudging Colombo to devolve more powers to the Northern Province

Were Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to stay away from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) summit in Colombo next month, it would not only be perceived as a snub by Sri Lanka but would damage Delhi’s soft-power projection in its own environs and prove deleterious to India’s interests.

India has just scored a singular achievement in reactivating the Northern Provincial Council. That should have been sufficient for New Delhi to face down pressure from Tamil Nadu vis-à-vis attendance by its leader at CHOGM.

If it is unable to do so, it will also reduce India’s capacity to nudge Colombo forward on the delivery of devolution — the preponderant view in Sri Lanka would then be that even the riskiest move such as the holding of Northern elections and the installation of an administration critical of the State in the strategically sensitive North does not earn even so much as the attendance of the Indian Prime Minister at CHOGM. The conclusion would be that there is little to be gained by moving forward on the issue of devolution that is of significance to India. This in turn may prompt the Sri Lankan government to believe the re-establishment of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) is as far as Colombo should go and good as it is going to get.

Image perception

Then again, there is the optics of absenting oneself from an event in one’s neighbourhood which will be attended by other neighbours including one’s critics. This would reinforce a negative vision of India as a power that is deficient in good neighbourly custom and sentiment, insensitive to the hurt pride of small neighbours, but at the same time is weak enough to have its external relations shaped if not determined by sub-regional pressure.

It is unrealistic to assume that New Delhi would ignore the feelings in a State of 70 million people especially in an election season. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to balance those sentiments with those of a neighbouring state and the overwhelming majority of its people, by pointing to the holding of the elections in the North and the reconstitution after a quarter of a century, of that important sub-state unit in which the Tamil minority constitutes a majority.

If the Prime Minister of India is blackmailed by Tamil Nadu into absenting himself from the summit despite the election of the NPC, it is highly probable that the same factor would prevent Delhi from being perceived as favouring Colombo or even sit on the fence at the March 2014 session of the U.N. Human Rights Council if a resolution to initiate an international inquiry into the conduct of the war by the Sri Lankan state were to come up for a vote. Tamil sentiment in Tamil Nadu is no more legitimate or politically significant than Sinhala sentiment in Sri Lanka. Therefore, an Indian semi-snub cannot but reinforce the negative aspect of the ambivalent sentiment towards India prevalent among the vast majority of the neighbouring island’s inhabitants.

Beijing-Islamabad tilt

While it may not prove a strategically prudent reaction, this public opinion backlash can only renew an abiding sense in the Sri Lankan establishment, dating back to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tilt during the Bangladesh war, that the island state is better served by location on a Beijing-Islamabad axis.

The Bandaranaike tilt of the early 1970s was itself a variant on the policy of the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon, D.S. Senanayake, who perceived a threat from Nehruvian India and a nexus between the powerful neighbour and inhabitants of Indian origin in the central highlands of the island nation. His strategy was to retain a relationship with the West and to politically marginalise the domestic Tamil component of perceived Indian influence.

Given the India-U.S. axis, Sri Lanka manifestly has no western card to play, but it could regard itself as the third corner of a Beijing-Islamabad-Colombo triangle, however unsustainable such a strategic posture could turn out to be. The domestic aspect of such a strategic decision could be to regard the vital border areas of the Northern Province as a potential sphere of influence if not a beachhead of an unfriendly India. This cannot but impact upon the progress of the process of the full devolution of powers in accordance with the Thirteenth Amendment.

It is of course true that India is of sufficient size, strength and significance to ignore the sentiments of its neighbours. However, the relationship with Vietnam cannot be entirely irrelevant to China nor can that with Mexico be irrelevant to the U.S. Both relationships have a history of suspicion on the part of the smaller power. As a small island, Sri Lanka lacks the weight of a Vietnam or Mexico, but it can be a prickly porcupine which will then be regarded by India more as the U.S. did Cuba. This would entail a complete abdication of soft power in Delhi’s equation with Colombo, its retrenchment to and residual retention only in the island’s Northern periphery and the replacement of equidistance or a balancing act between Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority and Tamil minority in favour of an irrevocable Indian tilt to the latter.

Vital cards

After the friction of a few years ago with its neighbours, China is more aware of the importance of how it is perceived to behave in its own immediate environs. The loss to India’s soft power in South Asia by the alienation of Sri Lanka will neither be negligible nor ephemeral. This is an outcome and scenario that need to be rethought in a neighbourhood that is not devoid of competition.

The presence or absence of the Indian Prime Minister at CHOGM and India’s vote on an international inquiry mechanism at the UNHRC in March 2014 are cards that must not be thrown away. As Ronald Reagan cautioned, once you’ve played your last card, you no longer have it. India must not gain the Tamil minority of the island only to lose Sri Lanka. India’s Sri Lanka policy must not seem as if it has been formulated at the Madras Cafe.

(Dayan Jayatilleka was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. in Geneva from 2007-09, and until recently, Ambassador to France. He is the author of Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka, 2013.)

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