Why India did the right thing by not voting against Sri Lanka

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The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre has little to show to the world after 10 years in power. But just a few weeks before India goes to a crucial national election, the Manmohan Singh government has made a move which deserves a strong appreciation.

The move is in the foreign policy domain or more specifically, it is about abstaining from voting on human rights violation in Sri Lanka, our maritime naighbour in the south. The act marked a sharp departure from what New Delhi had done in 2012 and 2013, i.e., vote against the Rajapaksa regime. But this time, India chose an objective path and New Delhi deserves a pat on its back.

The act is also special because it came just a few weeks ahead of the elections and the Congress-led government took the strong step despite being plagued by a strong anti-incumbency mood.

Although under-reported, the move on Lanka is a high point of the UPA govt

It is true that the UPA had less problem to go ahead with its objective decision this time because of the absence of the DMK in the coalition. The other big force, AIADMK, is also not on its side. But at the same time, one can argue that this move bears the risk of an electoral debacle in Tamil Nadu where the Congress is already in a precarious position. The scope to cash in on the Tamil sentiment as a counter-move to Jayalalithaa's recent initiative to set the killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was also there (P Chidambaram perhaps rued this) but yet New Delhi chose not to allow a crucial foreign policy decision to get blurred by divisive party politics. This is where the rulers showed their real character.

Separating domestic politics from international reality

This is something easier said than done in the era of strengthening regionalism in Indian politics. New Delhi has to maintain a crucial balance between a foreign policy continuity and the instability of electoral politics. It is a good sign that the priority was served without a compromise this time and the country's immediate neighbourhood in the south averted an adverse impact.

Why India did the right thing this time

New Delhi served its interests perfectly by abstaining from voting in the UN. Here is a look at why it was important to do so:

Bilateral relation:

The policy of boycotting doesn't help anybody, definitely not India. As India's foreign minister Salman Khurshid has repeatedly said, New Delhi can serve the interest of the Sri Lankan Tamils best by engaging with Colombo more. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa ahead of the BIMSTEC talks in Myanmar where they committed themselves for the betterment of the bilateral relation. We have seen that soon after India's stand on the UN voting, Sri Lanka decided to release Indian fishermen kept in its jail. This is the success of diplomacy in the bilateral relation. India needs such reciprocation to ensure that the island-nation doesn't tilt towards China and the geo-strategic Indian ocean region turn into a zone of unstable power game of world politics.

International politics:

India's abstention at the UN is also significant in the international arena.

First, India has little profit in toeing the West's moral stand on Sri Lanka. The US and UK might think that India's domestic political compulsion will make it a natural follower of their policy on Sri Lanka but the latter needs to keep in mind its long-term goal, which is more global in nature. In 2014, India has successfully overcome the Tamil factor and emerge with an internationalist outlook.

Second, the international politics at this moment is witnessing a Cold War-like polarisation over various regional problems. Like the Syrian and Ukrainian crisis, the Sri Lankan question can also contribute towards intensifying of this polarisation and as sources believe, anti-West countries like Russia, China, Iran and Cuba are mulling a counter-move on Sri Lanka against the West. By abstaining from voting, India will be in a position to avert a possible confrontation over Sri Lanka in the international stage. It can not afford to revisit the 1950s when the heat of the Cold War first touched South Asia after Pakistan entered the Western camp, making it necessary for India to take the other route to make the game a balanced one.

Third, international politics is more about mobilising support than actually resolving any issue. If any country tomorrow uses the UN accusing India of violating human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, then it could bcome difficult for India to mobilise enough support in its favour, particularly in South Asia. India's abstention has served its realistic interests well.

Finally, Mauritius, a country with which India shares a cordial relation, isn't a supporter of Sri Lanka and this does require India to maintain a diplomatic balance. A slight escalation in the politics of Indian Ocean can see intervention of extra-regional powers in and around Diego Garcia. New Delhi surely wouldn't want the question of atrocities on Sri Lankan Tamils jeopardise its own maritime security.

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