Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will skip this week’s meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Sri Lanka, which has been marred by long-running accusations that Colombo has failed to address the issue of war crimes against Tamils.
Singh’s move is seen as bowing to pressure from India’s own large Tamil population, with an eye to a general election that must be held by May next year.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had already said he would boycott the Commonwealth heads of government meeting that Sri Lanka is hosting from Friday to Sunday.
Harper said last month he was disturbed by continuing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, the harassment of minorities, reported disappearances and allegations of extrajudicial killings.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will attend, but will demand an investigation into the accusations.
The Sri Lankan government, which defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, faces increasing pressure from the international community to try those responsible for rights abuses during a nearly three-decade-long civil war.
Critics in India slammed Singh’s decision as opening the door for giant Asian rival China, which helps fund Sri Lanka’s military and infrastructure projects, to extend its influence.
Indian news channels and newspapers reported the decision over the weekend, saying Indian Cabinet Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid would go instead.
“From time to time the prime minister is required to be here and he is unable to visit,” Khurshid told reporters yesterday. “It should not be looked at as something that, if such a decision has been taken, will affect India-Sri Lanka relations.”
Sri Lanka has become a visible front in the competition between India and China, where mutual suspicion and commercial ambition have led to a race for construction projects.
“Now we are vacating our backyard for the Chinese to rebuild all of a booming post-war Sri Lanka,” influential columnist and editor Shekhar Gupta wrote in the Indian Express newspaper, about Singh’s move. “Canceling now would amount to letting India down without persuading one more Tamil to vote for his coalition.”
Singh sent a letter to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday informing him of the decision not to attend.
The move has reawakened questions about Singh’s legacy after he steps down — as he is expected to do — following the vote next year. His ruling Congress party has been weakened by a string of corruption scandals, high inflation and stuttering growth after nine years in power, but is relying on its record of support for the rural citizens who form two-thirds of India’s population.
Singh’s landmark foreign policy initiatives have hit major roadblocks, such as a 2008 atomic energy deal with the US that lifted India out of diplomatic isolation put in place in response to its nuclear program.