The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) rarely generates much news, with the charitable suggesting that the organisation of former British colonies has outlived its utility. But the 23rd CHOGM, due in Sri Lanka from November 15 to 17, has taken on political salience in India following a unanimous resolution in the Tamil Nadu Assembly last week calling for a boycott of the meeting because of the Sri Lankan government's repression of its Tamil minority. The resolution has also called for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth until its government takes steps to equalise Tamil rights with those of the majority Sinhalese. However, there are compelling geopolitical reasons to not boycott the CHOGM. The Sri Lankan government is extremely sensitive to world opinion, and the Chinese courting of the island nation's leadership is already far advanced. India's interests in terms of maintaining security in the Indian Ocean might be severely compromised if Manmohan Singh does not go to Colombo.
State-level politics has recently come to affect foreign policy in a way that it did not earlier. Consider, for example, Bangladesh: India is paying a price for allowing then-ally Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal chief minister, to scuttle a vital Teesta River water-sharing deal with a friendly government in Dhaka. It is worth noting that, when Ms Banerjee subsequently withdrew support to the United Progressive Alliance on an unrelated issue, her exit caused no discernible harm to the ruling alliance. It is also worth noting that Colombo is particularly sensitive, given the history of bilateral relations between the two countries, to any sign of intervention by New Delhi in Sri Lanka's affairs. Already, India's support this March of a US-sponsored resolution in the Human Rights Commission condemning human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan government has raised the temperature.
The Canadian prime minister is boycotting the Commonwealth meeting and plans to move a boycott resolution. But Canada is distant from turbulent South Asian politics, where such moral stands can be much more costly. In any case, the Indian state has traditionally avoided stands on human rights issues in other countries, given that the conduct of its security forces in Kashmir and the Northeast would hardly stand up to similar scrutiny. In any case, no matter how unattractive the current dispensation in Colombo appears to outsiders, it did hold reasonably fair elections in the Tamil-dominated north - something that should count for something with India, which sets so much store by the power of the ballot box. It is a truism that in diplomacy engagement is always preferable to isolation; this is doubly true in a neighbourhood in which an amoral Chinese government is unobtrusively strengthening its presence. There are, thus, no compelling reasons for Manmohan Singh to boycott the Colombo meeting. Indeed, there are more urgent reasons for him to go.