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Head to Lanka, Mr PM

Mallika Joseph

Or admit that your grand charter for foreign policy is meaningless.

In his recent address at the Annual Conclave of Indian Ambassadors/High Commissioners Abroad in Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh outlined what he believed were the five principles that have come to define Indian foreign policy. While acknowledging the attempts made to fundamentally reset Indian foreign policy over the last nine years, he emphasised the need to base it on India’s role and destiny in world affairs. Seen in this light, Indian foreign policy in the neighbourhood falls flat on its face. One fails to see how any of its recent policies with South Asian neighbours enhances India’s role and destiny. On the contrary, they have managed to create just the opposite effect.

For instance, take India’s engagement with Sri Lanka, or more particularly, the recent dithering over the prime minister’s participation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo. With the CHOGM being hosted in Asia after a gap of 24 years, and in the South Asian neighbourhood after 30 years, it should be an opportunity for India to showcase its power and influence in the region and within the Commonwealth. Instead, the prime minister’s very participation is clouded with uncertainty.

If developments in Sri Lanka cause concern in India then it should plan to raise these concerns at the CHOGM, at the appropriate time. It could also wield its influence on the international body and urge it to address the issue accordingly. Contemplating not attending the meet strengthens one, if not a combination, of the following arguments.

First, India is perhaps ill-prepared to attend the CHOGM and has no specific agenda on using the occasion. Forget Sri Lanka, doesn’t India see any advantage at all in this meeting to project its “role and destiny in world affairs”? This is the Asian century, with extra-regional powers realigning their policy for a “pivot to Asia”. As one of the oldest civilisations and powers in the region, it is surprising that India does not see an opportunity in the Commonwealth meet to lay out its vision for the region and continent.

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