Indian Foreign Policy vs Domestic Concerns


March 11, 2014 06:19 EDT

The recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, attracted attention for reasons beyond its intended purpose. Apart from the visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron to Tamil-populated Jaffna in Sri Lanka, the absence of prime ministers from India, Canada and Mauritius was also much discussed in the media.

The nonparticipation of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was widely criticized by analysts, stating that India’s foreign policy had become hostage to domestic politics. Singh did not participate in the CHOGM, following demands from Tamil Nadu, India’s southern state which shares a common ethno-cultural and linguistic bonding with the Tamil-speaking population of northern Sri Lanka.

The Tamils wanted India to boycott the CHOGM, so as to pressure Sri Lanka to address alleged human rights issues during the final phase of the country’s civil war that ended in 2009.

Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

Of the 70 million Tamils in the world, around 85% live in Tamil Nadu. The rest are spread over Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and many other countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

Given their geographical proximity, Tamils of India hold their Sri Lankan counterparts very dear to their heart, and have been providing moral and political support to them during and after the Sri Lankan Civil War. Ever since the conflict ended, reports of alleged cruelty meted out to Sri Lankan Tamil civilians and rebels have surfaced.

Expressing solidarity with their unfortunate brethren in Sri Lanka, people of Tamil Nadu, jointly with the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, have been calling for an independent international investigation into the alleged war crimes.

Leaders from Tamil Nadu appealed to New Delhi to boycott the CHOGM, as India’s absence in the meeting would send signals to the international community to force Sri Lanka to bring justice to the suffering of its Tamil population. PM Singh obliged by declining to participate in the CHOGM, although not officially stated so by him. He sent his external affairs minister on his behalf, while the demand was for a total boycott.


Most observers of Indian politics criticized India’s nonparticipation, arguing that New Delhi’s foreign policy had been swayed by domestic politics, as major political parties from Tamil Nadu called for boycotting the event. Critics saw the decision on the CHOGM as an opportunity for China to strengthen its ties with Sri Lanka.

Apart from attacking the decision on the grounds of yielding to domestic pressure ahead of national elections, critics have not spelt out any other solid reasons as to why nonparticipation in the CHOGM would severely impact India’s foreign relations. The criticisms appear to be based on incorrect assumptions, while they also lack consideration of other related issues. There is an implicit assumption that foreign policy is superior and, therefore, domestic affairs should be made to toe the line of foreign policy. The critics have failed to consider long pending issues that culminated in shaping up the prevailing public opinion in Tamil Nadu.

Also, there is an assumption that the demand for a boycott was only made by politicians (and thus without mass support). This calls for a need to respond to the critics, by providing alternative perspectives.

Foreign Policy vs. Domestic Concerns

One of the foremost criticisms was “foreign policy has bowed down to domestic concerns.” Here, the implied assumption is the idea that foreign policy is superior and reserved for the elites. The debate on the relationship between domestic concerns and foreign policy is as old as the study of International Relations itself, with a plethora of literature on it.

The school of thought that prevailed until the 1970s favored an elite-centric model of foreign policy. During the 1950s and 1960s, the influential work of scholarship in the field was the Almond-Lipmann Consensus, which asserted that: “Public opinion is volatile, emotional and irrational and hence not a meaningful factor in foreign policy formulation.”

There was a shift in thought beginning in the early 1980s, when scholars began to advocate a strong linkage between public opinion and foreign policy. In 1988, Robert Putnam, professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, proposed a game theoretic model.

He conceived a two-level game: First, the domestic level in which domestic groups pressure the government for a foreign policy that satisfies their interests; and second, the game reaches the international level, in which the respective “national governments seek to maximize their own ability to satisfy domestic pressures, while minimizing the adverse consequences of foreign developments.”

Putnam makes an interesting observation: “Neither of the two games can be ignored by the central decision makers, so long as their countries remain inter-dependent, yet sovereign.”

More recently, Aaron David Miller drew an analogy by comparing domestic politics to gravitational force. Thus, it has become an accepted wisdom in the study of International Relations that domestic concerns ought to be given their due place while making foreign policy.

Despite such a paradigm shift in the scholarly thought challenging the elitist approach, it is surprising to see denouncement of New Delhi’s decision to heed its people’s concerns. If Singh had been stubborn in attending the CHOGM, it would have created tensions and unrest in the state of Tamil Nadu by triggering protests. Only a few months earlier was Tamil Nadu forced to close educational institutions, as students across the state staged protests demanding for India to vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

When memories of the Sri Lankan Civil War are still fresh in the minds of the people of Tamil Nadu, any move by the government that may appear to hurt their sentiments would disturb domestic harmony, law and order.

Given this background, PM Singh took a balanced decision by not personally attending the CHOGM; but at the same time, sending his external affairs minister on his behalf, so as not to compromise India’s obligation toward the CHOGM. The Indian government deserves to be lauded for giving due consideration to the concerns of its people.

It is true the conduct of foreign affairs requires understanding of international laws and political, economic and strategic dynamics. It requires tact and diplomacy. These requirements call for expertise, which only trained professionals are bestowed with.

However, it does not provide absolute liberty to foreign policy decision-makers to discount the sentiments of the masses. After all, it is the masses who elect the government. If a democratic government is said to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people, then it is the duty of the government to listen to the concerns of its people. This is what the Indian government did in the present case.

Is the CHOGM a Key Platform for Foreign Affairs?

While projecting Singh’s decision to skip the CHOGM as “unprecedented” and likely to “paralyze foreign policy,” critics have ignored the fact that this is not the first time an Indian prime minister has missed a CHOGM.

In the past, prime ministers have missed the meeting for no specific reason, but mostly due to their other engagements. In the ten CHOGMs over the past two decades, an Indian prime minister has participated only in five. On four occasions, a minister led the Indian delegation. Singh himself led the Indian delegation in 1993, when he was the finance minister. At the 2011 CHOGM in Perth, Vice-President Hamid Ansari represented the country.

Moreover, a random look at participation records of previous CHOGMs shows there has hardly been 100% attendance by heads of governments. This indicates that government officials do not necessarily view CHOGMs as an essential tool for foreign affairs.

Therefore, the argument posed by critics that PM Singh’s nonparticipation in the CHOGM would seriously impact India’s foreign affairs is untenable. India and Sri Lanka have multiple levels of, and opportunities for, engagement. This single instance of the CHOGM will not create any significant dent in the relationship.

Intertwined and Pending Issues

Furthermore, critics have neglected to consider other long pending issues that have shaped public opinion in Tamil Nadu over a period of time. Since independence, foreign policy has been under the domain of the central government, as mandated by the Constitution of India. Although there is no requirement for the central government to consult the state governments on foreign policy issues that would impact the people of that state, it is a reasonable expectation on the part of the states that they are consulted.

The people of Tamil Nadu do not see a visible consultative practice in matters affecting them. This feeling is not something new, but seeds were sown four decades ago, when New Delhi decided against Tamil Nadu’s views while drawing boundaries with Sri Lanka.

In 1974, New Delhi and Colombo signed an agreement to finalize boundaries in historic waters. As a result, Katchatheevu, an island between the two countries, went to Sri Lanka. Fishermen in Tamil Nadu consider the island important to them, as it houses St. Antony’s Shrine, a holy place. Also, Tamil Nadu claims Katchatheevu to have been under the administration of historical rulers within the state.

The decision to “cede” the territory was a unilateral move by New Delhi, despite opposition from Tamil Nadu. Since then, Tamil Nadu has questioned the legality of the decision, as the constitution does not permit ceding of any territory.

A prominent leader from Tamil Nadu has taken up this matter with the Supreme Court. (New Delhi holds the view that there was no “ceding” of any territory, but it so happened Katchatheevu went to Sri Lanka during the course of demarcating boundaries.)

Adding fuel to the fire is the seeming indifference of New Delhi over the repeated killings of fishermen from Tamil Nadu by the Sri Lankan Navy. The people of Tamil Nadu compare this with the killing of two fishermen from the adjacent state Kerala, by two Italian Navy marines. In Kerala’s case, India took quick legal and diplomatic action.

On the other hand, despite acknowledging in parliament (in response to various members’ questions) the issue of killings or arrest of hundreds of Tamil Nadu fishermen by Sri Lanka, New Delhi has demonstrated little visible action. The fishermen issue can be partly attributed to the earlier decision of ceding Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka. Article 6 of the 1974 Agreement between India and Sri Lanka allows the people of India to continue to “enjoy their traditional rights.”

This clause is ambiguous, however. Tamil Nadu interprets it as an implied right to fish (a “traditional” activity) in the disputed territory. When a question on fishing rights was raised in parliament in August 2011, the external affairs minister responded by saying: “[The Indian fishermen] do not have the legal right to fish in the waters in Katchatheevu Island.”

Leaving the Katchatheevu issue aside, counterallegations are often made by Colombo that Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu stray into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters and also use prohibited fishing methods.

Assuming Colombo’s claim is correct, the key factor that aggravates tensions is the frequently reported harsh treatment of fishermen if they cross the territory. It is not clear as to whether the Indian side has devised any mechanism to prevent its fishermen from crossing the territory. Taking a cue from the swift action in Kerala’s case, the people of Tamil Nadu feel unhappy over New Delhi’s continued indifference when it comes to them.

The third issue is India’s way of dealing with the Sri Lankan Civil War and its resultant humanitarian crisis. It is beyond the scope of this article to make a dissection of this issue. Some critics ought to be commended for their argument that PM Singh should have attended the CHOGM and urged Colombo to address the Tamils’ issues.

With due respects to their views, the people of Tamil Nadu widely believe that India tacitly supported Colombo in the final phase of the war and, therefore, it would be unrealistic to expect New Delhi to play a proactive role in addressing the crisis.

At the cost of repetition, the main issue is not about the merits of the decision to not participate in the CHOGM. Of course, there are other well-meaning, well-intended counterarguments considering larger interests. The objective here is to convey that foreign policy of a democratic government has to necessarily factor in domestic concerns; and there is an undercurrent in the minds of people of Tamil Nadu which led to calls for a boycott of the CHOGM.

Perhaps the case of Tamil Nadu is an example which underlines the need for taking people’s concerns into account while making foreign policy. Joint meetings, such as a recently scheduled appointment between representatives of fishermen and Indian and Sri Lankan officials, may help clear misunderstandings and strengthen friendship leading to common good. New Delhi and Colombo may also consider facilitating visits of elected leaders from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka, so as to develop mutual goodwill and encourage participative decision-making.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member

Leave a comment