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India’s Vote Against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC was a Well-Calculated Decision

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The debate about the ‘emergence’ or ‘re-emergence’ of India as an important player at the world stage goes on the one hand. On the other, the Indian state is confronted with a major challenge, as regions (provinces) are asserting their rights and able to influence the foreign policy discourse.

In addition, critics point out recent setbacks of Indian foreign policy in the Maldives and to a certain extent in Sri Lanka as signs of its non-arrival at the international arena since Indian foreign policy retains its primary focus on South Asia. Now, it is pertinent to investigate as to how India negotiates its foreign policy making challenges, especially towards its neighbour Sri Lanka.

India’s vote against Sri Lanka in the United States (US) sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on human rights violations in Sri Lanka – during the last phase of Eelam War IV in May 2009 – in March 2013 has drawn a great deal of attention in India and elsewhere. The ‘nationalistic’ (read majority) section of the opinion makers argued that India could ill-afford to vote against Sri Lanka, as it would jeopardise the bilateral relationship, in turn, would drive Sri Lanka further towards China.

Further, Indian states (read regions) have narrow ‘regional’ interests in mind, and lack ‘national’ vision. Moreover, India has traditionally desisted from voting country specific resolutions at the UNHRC.

However, political parties from Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Vidudhalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), who were part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government at the Centre, urged that India vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC lest they would withdraw from the government, rendering it vulnerable.

The students’ protests and hunger strike had not only complicated the issue, but also heightened the political tension in Tamil Nadu. Some commentators even called it a ‘Tamil Spring’. In addition, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) dominated Tamil Nadu assembly had adopted a resolution, unanimously, advocating the Centre to impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka, and those responsible for ‘genocide’ and ‘war crimes’ should be prosecuted.

Amidst these contending voices, the Indian government dithered for a while. At the last minute, India attempted to bring amendments in the resolution to make it more stringent. Nonetheless, the US, the sponsor of the resolution, declined to incorporate as it would create confusion among inclining members, and may affect its favourable outcome.

Eventually, 24 countries voted in favour (including India), 15 against and 8 abstentions in the Council of 47 nations. The ‘nationalists’ asserted that India sacrificed its national interest at the altar of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil political parties declared that the Central government had betrayed the interests of the Tamils.

Then, how does one explain India’s vote against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. India’s diligent examination of the ubiquitous China factor in Sri Lanka has demystified it to a certain extent.

The geographical reality of India with its South Asian neighbours enhances its power projection capabilities despite China’s increasing defence budget and modernising military. Further, India’s military relation with Sri Lanka is expanding, which includes joint military exercises, sharing intelligence and training, although China provides military hardware to Sri Lanka.

China is the biggest lender to Sri Lanka, and big-ticket projects like Hambantota port have highlighted it. However, Chinese loans come with higher interest rates and premiums. Yet, the US remains the single largest source of portfolio investments in stocks and shares of private companies and government securities in Sri Lanka.

Further, India is a major source of foreign direct investment and export market for Sri Lanka. India is also the single largest source of tourists for Sri Lanka, followed by Western European nations. Therefore, these factors managed the possibility of Sri Lanka switching China for India and other Western powers, at least now.

The role of states in foreign policy making is in a quandary. The growing financial independence of states in the Indian union, and their ability to influence, especially, foreign economic policy making has been a significant development in Centre-State relations in the last two decades.

The Indian constitution disallows any regional participation in foreign and security policymaking process, and they remain exclusively Union/Centre government’s prerogative. The increasing participation of regional political parties in coalition governments at the Centre has brought their concerns to national focus. The Central government resolved the dilemma through resorting to the same number game.

DMK was a major, long-standing coalition partner. DMK has 18 MPs in the Lok Sabha, and it reduced the strength of the ruling alliance to 224 after its pullout in the Parliament, where the magic number for a majority is 272. Nevertheless, the Union government secured outside support of parties such as the Samajwadi Party (22 members) and Bahujan Samaj Party (21 members) to tide over the crisis. The constitutional debate over states’ role in foreign policy making is continuing, yet the Union government retains the final say in the decisions.

The issue of country-specific voting at the UNHRC has also received copious attention. India has desisted from participating in country-specific voting at the UNHRC following the challenges it faced in the past, especially a possible Pakistani resolution against it in 1993. It was pragmatic, rather than a principled choice. However, India’s ties with the US, main sponsor of resolutions at the UNHRC, in the last decade has improved and become robust.

The possibility of the US repeating any such acts against India has reduced significantly. Moreover, India, as a seeker of a permanent seat in a reformed UN Security Council, ought to support democractie movements and struggles for human rights around the world, certainly in its backyard, to strengthen its claim. Therefore, India’s vote against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC was a well-calculated decision.In the final analysis, the Indian state has been able to navigate and make appropriate foreign policy choices despite increasing domestic challenges to its authority. Further, India’s decision to support the resolution indicates its willingness to be proactive and take a stand on a sensitive issue in South Asia. However, whether India would assume a more assertive role in its neighbourhood is a moot question.

(Dr D Gnanagurunathan is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal)

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