This week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh again emerged as a key figure factor in Sri Lankan politics as Colombo continued to woo the Indian leader, with External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris personally visiting New Delhi to invite Singh for the upcoming Commonwealth Summit.
Minister Peiris was cordially received but Singh played his cards close to his chest neither confirming nor excluding the possibility of his attendance at the summit. Instead, Peiris was lectured on the need for Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters to be dealt with leniently.
"Singh is next due to face the polls again by May 2014, only nine months away. He must be mindful of the fact that after two terms in office, the burdens of incumbency will affect his popularity. Although he will be almost eighty two years of age then, he has not signaled any intentions to step down."
As hosts of the Commonwealth summit, Sri Lanka was hoping for a positive response from Singh who would have been among the high profile leaders at the summit. However Singh is again playing politics with the summit, trying to extract concessions from Colombo in return for its participation.
It will be recalled that previously, New Delhi played a crucial role in confirming Colombo as the venue for the summit when some countries, most notably Canada, wanted it changed. On that occasion, India used its good offices with Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma.
It was reported that Sharma was prevailed upon by the Indian government to ensure that Colombo was confirmed as the host venue. In return however, New Delhi sought assurances from Colombo that elections to the Northern provincial council would be held prior to the Commonwealth Summit.
"Just as President Mahinda Rajapaksa walks a political tight -rope trying to appease all factions in his ruling coalition, so does Singh"
As a strategy, it is a neat little ploy. By insisting that the polls are held before the summit, India is sending the message that if the polls are either not conducted or conducted in a manner that is not considered free and fair, it will not be sending a high profile delegation to Colombo for the summit.
Such Machiavellian maneuvers may seem alien to Manmohan Singh, the thirteenth Prime Minister of India, who until late in his life was an economist and a bureaucrat. Yet, his meteoric rise in politics is also a fascinating story of making the most of the opportunities that fortuitously came his way.
Now just a month shy of his eighty first birthday, Singh was born in what is now Pakistan. His family migrated to India during the partition of the country during independence. Singh completed his secondary education in Punjab but had most of his higher education in Britain.
He obtained his bachelor’s degree reading economics at the Cambridge University and returned briefly to India. He went to Britain again to read for his doctorate at the Oxford University. He then arrived in India to work for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Thereafter he served as an advisor in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. He was later bestowed with several key positions such as chief economic advisor to the government, governor of the Reserve Bank of India and as the head of the Planning Commission.
Singh’s plunge into politics came in 1991, when then Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao appointed him as his Finance Minister. With no political track record to boast of, Singh’s appointment raised many eyebrows. He was tasked with reforming India’s then ailing economy.
Singh was able to set in motion a series of changes that liberalised India’s economy, despite strong opposition from conservative sections in the country. This included inviting direct foreign investment and the privatisation of many state- owned ventures. The reforms were a success.
This enhanced Singh’s reputation as a quiet achiever in the political arena but his Congress party lost the subsequent elections in 1996. Relegated to the Opposition and unable to win a seat in the Lok Sabha, Singh then served as the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
The Congress party was returned to power in 2004. Congress Chairperson Sonia Gandhi surprised many by opting not to become Prime Minister, appointing Singh instead for the position. Never a populist politician, many did not expect the soft-spoken technocrat to succeed in his job.
Singh however defied both his critics and the dire predictions. A strong work ethic, a focus on economic development and an image as an incorruptible man in the tainted world of Indian politics won him many admirers-and the next general election held in 2009.
The elderly, bespectacled and mild mannered Singh is an anachronism in the loud hurly burly of Indian politics. He is also the first Indian Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to win re-election after completing a full five-year term. He has been hailed by some as the best Premier since Nehru.
Singh is next due to face the polls again by May 2014, only nine months away. He must be mindful of the fact that after two terms in office, the burdens of incumbency will affect his popularity. Although he will be almost eighty two years of age then, he has not signalled any intentions to step down.
Singh is also aware that in any electoral calculations, the support of the state of Tamil Nadu which contributes 39 seats to the 543 seat Parliament, is crucial. Hence his posturing on behalf of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and insistence on Colombo implementing the 13th Amendment in full.
Singh’s stance has earned him a few friends in Sri Lanka lately. It must however be remembered that in 2009, while in the throes of a general election, Singh offered tacit support to the Sri Lankan armed forces to complete their operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Singh’s current predicament with Colombo is perhaps not only because of the upcoming polls in India. New Delhi also has a perception that Sri Lanka is dragging its feet on devolution of power and reconciliation. It also believes Colombo has reneged on assurances it has previously given New Delhi.
Just as President Mahinda Rajapaksa walks a political tight -rope trying to appease all factions in his ruling coalition, so does Singh. If the duo do meet in Colombo, it will augur well for Indo-Lanka relations. If they don’t, the decibel level in the sabre rattling across the Palk Straits will only rise.