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Time for reshaping India's neighbourhood policy

March 28, 2014 17:28 IST

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh with Sri Lankan President Mahinda RajapaksaAbstaining from voting on a UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka was dictated as much by necessity and self-preservation as by a desire to place bilateralism at the front and centre of New Delhi’s ties with Colombo, says Ramesh Ramachandran.

In a departure from its hitherto familiar voting pattern on United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions critical of Sri Lanka, India on Thursday abstained from casting its vote on the resolution that approved an independent international investigation into certain alleged war crimes and gross human rights violations committed by the government of Sri Lanka during the 2009 civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The customary ‘explanation of vote’ by the permanent representative of India to the UN offices in Geneva said, among other things, that: “In asking the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate, assess and monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, the resolution ignores the progress already made by the country in this field and places in jeopardy the cooperation currently taking place between the government of Sri Lanka and the OHCHR and the council’s special procedures. Besides, the resolution is inconsistent and impractical in asking both the government of Sri Lanka and the OHCHR to simultaneously conduct investigations”;

“India believes that it is imperative for every country to have the means of addressing human rights violations through robust national mechanisms. The council’s efforts should therefore be in a direction to enable Sri Lanka to investigate all allegations of human rights violations through comprehensive, independent and credible national investigative mechanisms and bring to justice those found guilty. Sri Lanka should be provided all assistance it desires in a cooperative and collaborative manner”; and

“It has been India’s firm belief that adopting an intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty and institutions is counterproductive.”

After having voted for the UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013, India’s abstention this year is indicative of a course correction in New Delhi’s engagement with Colombo that is aimed at retrieving the ground lost in the intervening years, burnishing India’s credentials as a relevant player in the island nation’s affairs and signalling a return to bilateralism as the centrepiece of India-Sri Lanka ties (not necessarily in that order).

If India’s support for the resolutions in the previous years exposed an utter bankruptcy of ideas on how to engage with Sri Lanka (thereby implicitly admitting to a failure on the part of New Delhi to either influence the course of events or bring about the desired change in Colombo’s disposition), the abstention should be seen as a belated attempt to pull the relationship back from the brink.

Of course, it helped that the reaction from the regional parties was muted this year and that gave New Delhi extra room for manoeuvre, enabling it in the process to regain its voice vis-a-vis the states on foreign policy matters.

It needs to be said here that India cannot claim to adhere to a consistent policy towards Sri Lanka. First it nurtured the LTTE and burnt its fingers in the process. Then it extended a tacit support to Colombo -- before, during and after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009 -- only to later, in its wisdom, support the UNHRC resolution piloted by the United States. The 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting summit in Sri Lanka was as much in the news for the renewed focus on the human rights record of the host nation as for the decision by the prime minister of India not to take part in it. In his stead it was left to External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to lead the Indian delegation for the biennial event of the 53-nation Commonwealth.

In a letter of regret that was hand-delivered to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Singh informed Rajapaksa of his inability to attend personally but he did not assign any reasons for it. Suffice it to say that a careful reading of the history of India-Sri Lanka relations would make it evident to just about anyone that India’s policy towards this island-nation in the Indian Ocean can be described as consistently inconsistent, characterised by myopia and self-inflicted crises.

For the ministry of external affairs, what should be particularly worrying is the erosion in India’s standing, in what it calls, its sphere of influence. The recent debate over which way India should vote on a UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka is instructive to the extent that it illustrated how far India has come from being an influential actor in its neighbourhood to being a marginal or fringe player.

Put simply (not simplistically), some of the key questions were: Is it advisable for New Delhi to vote for the resolutions and risk losing whatever goodwill and leverage it might have had with Colombo? Should not all other options have been exhausted before India (figuratively) threw in the towel and (literally) threw in its lot with the West? Thursday’s abstention has partially answered that question. However, there remains another worry:

The protestations from Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and her rival and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi over India’s vote on Sri Lanka in 2012, coming as they did a few months after West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee ‘vetoed’ an agreement on the sharing of the Teesta river waters with Bangladesh, injected a certain degree of dissonance in the conduct of foreign policy. What fuelled the diplomats’ anxiety was the precedent that would be set if the Centre caved in or succumbed to the states on matters that fell in the Union Government’s realm. Already, India’s engagement of Pakistan on one hand and China and Burma on the other are determined to an extent by the domestic conditions prevalent in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states, respectively.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh betrayed his frustration when he said in the Lok Sabha that difficult decisions were getting more difficult because of coalition compulsions. He called for bipartisanship in the interest of the country. At the same time, what cannot be denied is that there exists a view among a section of serving and former practitioners of diplomacy that devolution of foreign policy to more stakeholders than what is currently assumed should not be entirely unwelcome.

As a former foreign secretary told this writer, “Foreign policy today is made not only in New Delhi but elsewhere, too. There are multiple stakeholders and one can’t deny states a say in foreign policy if it relates to them.” In other words, it is argued that if the states assert their rights and/or seek more consultations, then the Centre must respect those sentiments.

Having said that, an impression seems to be gaining ground, erroneously at that, that foreign policy is the worst sufferer of this nouveau phenomenon of the states having their say in matters pertaining to foreign policy. A cursory look at recent years would show that the states have consistently been vocal on a host of other issues, too. The recent examples of certain states or regional parties opposing the policy of raising the cap on FDI (foreign direct investment) in single-brand retail is a case in point. As is the opposition to the Centre’s proposal for setting up a National Counter Terrorism Centre.

In some of these cases New Delhi chose to yield, albeit temporarily, but in some others it had its way. Therefore, it would not be accurate to suggest that regional influences are wielding a ‘veto’ over New Delhi. Also, it would not be fair to either paint the states as villains of the piece or to apportion all the blame for the Centre’s foreign policy woes to regional parties that are, or could be, aligned against it in the political arena.

For instance, the Centre accuses the West Bengal government headed by the Trinamool Congress party of scuttling a river waters sharing agreement with Bangladesh. However, the Congress, which heads the ruling coalition at the Centre and also in Kerala, is guilty of playing to narrow political sentiments, too, as was evidenced by the state government’s and the party’s stand on the two Italian marines who are facing murder charges for the deaths of two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast.

On balance, it is time for reshaping India’s neighbourhood policy in a manner that it reflects the broadest possible national consensus on the way forward in reshaping ties with countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. A reset is imperative, irrespective of which coalition forms the next government in New Delhi. India can ill-afford a Pavlovian foreign policy.

Equally, framing India’s foreign policy options as a binary choice can be self-defeating. There needs to be a dispassionate debate and a greater appreciation of various shades of grey (pun unintended.)

Image: Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa

Ramesh Ramachandran is a journalist based in New Delhi.

 

Ramesh Ramachandran