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Learning from TESO meeting in Chennai
N Sathiya Moorthy
21 August 2012

If there is one thing that the stake-holders and other protagonists from all sides in Sri Lanka and elsewhere should understand from the recently-held TESO conference in Chennai, capital of the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, it is this -- the understanding of the ethnic issue and its political fallout on either side of the Palk Strait is inadequate, at best. And consequently, there is over-reaction to decisions and actions, which in turn are based on such misunderstanding, whatever be the political and electoral gains.

The octogenarian DMK patriarch and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, like his other counterparts in the State, continues to remain out of sync with events and developments among the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Like most others in the State, he and his party continue to take no note of the perceptions about the ’competitive Tamil Nadu politics’ in the minds of Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders and the rest.

At the organisational-level, it was a DMK affair, after all. Thus, the party should take the responsibility for perceived bungling at the organisational-level. These included their not obtaining special category ’conference visas’ for overseas participants in good time to the selection of venue with adequate space and security clearances. The latter led to the organisers having to approach the courts on weekend holidays, and trimming participation to the bones, to adhere to judicial guidelines and State Government directives.

The temptation may be for the DMK to blame the Congress leader of the ruling coalition and its open disinterest in and discomfort about the TESO conference, or any other political initiative in the country that seems to go overboard on the ’ethnic issue in Sri Lanka’. Thus, BJP’s Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, who is considered by some in the party as prime minister in-waiting, stayed away from the conference. Another national party in the CPM has stuck to the demand for a political solution within a united Sri Lanka.

Thus, Union Ministers Sharad Pawar (Nationalist Congress Party) and Dr Farooq Abdullah (Jammu and Kashmir National Conference), as also Janata Dal (United) chief Sharad Yadav too stayed away from the TESO meet. Their earlier commitment and subsequent cancellation by national leaders seemed to owe more to their political positions on the presidential polls heating up at the time, and inter-alliance brinkmanship with an eye on the parliamentary elections that are due in 2014 than anything immediate.

A low-profile leader from the NCP said at Chennai hailed Karunanidhi as a national leader. Every national or regional party has been saying this, either about Karunanidhi or his bête noire and Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, whenever they visualise the possibilities of a political realignment at the Centre in the foreseeable future. Having settled for a coordination committee at the national-level and in his native State of Maharashtra, viz. the Congress leader of the ruling coalition at the national and regional levels, Sharad Pawar would not have wanted to precipitate issues on that front by sharing the dais with Karunanidhi at Chennai when rest of the Congress-led coalition partners had not shown any interest.

For Abdullah, who is second in the three-generation political of the National Conference, identifying with a ’separatist cause’ at Chennai and campaigning for a political solution within a united India in his native Jammu and Kashmir would have been unthinkable. Sharad Yadav may have considered participation also because his party was seeking to send out a message to the BJP leader of the Opposition alliance at the national-level, first in the context of the presidential polls but more so in relation to the combine’s prime ministerial nominee in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.

All these relate to the internal dynamics of Indian politics and elections, and are seldom understood or appreciated by counterparts in Sri Lanka. The self-styled ’Sinhala nationalist’ ideologues and party leaders thus often give vent to what is often seen as an in-born urge in them to interpret political developments in India in ways that they have understood, or want to appreciate, or both. The moderates among them would however want India and Indians to appreciate the constituency-driven compulsions of ’Sinhala nationalists’ in the country, but do not want to extend the argument on the reverse.

Truth be told the lessons from the TESO conference are clear and unmistakable. One, the feverishness of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist lobby in Sri Lanka is not often matched by the ground realities in Tamil Nadu and the rest of India. They do not want to acknowledge the way the South Indian State voted in the parliamentary polls of 2009, at the height of the ’ethnic war’. Three days after the May 13 polls, the ethnic war had ended in Sri Lanka, the LTTE had been decimated and Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead.

It suits them all to harp on the ’Tamil Nadu factor’ and other larger anti-India arguments, to further their anti-Tamils pitch nearer home. One wonders thus as to what many of them would have been doing if there was no ’Tamil Nadu factor’ or an India element to the ethnic issue, to begin with. As may be recalled, it was over the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 that the ideology-driven Left militant JVP embraced a non-proletariat ’nationalist’ cause centred on divisive identities as religion and language. The constituency has expanded since, to cover other sections of the polity and political administration, too.

There is thus little appreciation in these quarters about the TNA’s decision to stay away from the TESO meet. Coming as it did after the controversial ITAK conference in Batticaloa, the current decision by all sections of the TNA to stay away should have been appreciated as much in public by their traditional and not-so-traditional critics within the country. In comparison, the post-Batti criticism of the TNA and the pre-TESO meet attacks on the DMK and the rest of the Tamil Nadu polity were harsh and repetitive.

The DMK/TESO leadership too got it wrong about the TNA and the rest of the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka. In post-war Sri Lanka, the TNA has sworn to a political solution within a united Sri Lanka. The party was not satisfied with the TESO back-tracking on the ’separatist agenda’ of some Sri Lankan Tamil groups that the Chennai conference had sought to flag initially. The party also possibly did not want to lend its name to any side to the ’competitive Tamil Nadu politics’, flavoured mainly on the ’ethnic issue’ in Sri Lanka.

It is thus a guess again as to how they would have taken their pan-Tamil agenda forward after the mainstreaming of the one-time separatist DMK in the Sixties, and a further weakening of the original ’separatist’ agenda with successive and periodic splits in the party. The formation of the AIADMK (1972) and the MDMK (1993) had in a way weakened the ’pan-Tamil’ perceptions not only in the DMK, but also about the DMK. This is a fact seldom acknowledged by the party, or understood elsewhere.

The lessons from the TESO conference are thus clear. For the DMK and the rest of the Tamil Nadu polity, it has sent out a clear signal. The politics of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora that has fed them on the separatist agenda from the past, and the relatively realistic demands made by the TNA on the ground are diverse and delineated. They need to understand and appreciate this basic truth before proceeding on the ethnic issue, if they are not to end up losing their game, even nearer home.

For the Sri Lankan polity and Government, it is a clear indication that on the Geneva vote the Indian decision was not based on the ’Tamil Nadu factor’ but on the larger concerns expressed by all sections of the polity at the national-level, for days on end inside Parliament and outside. Yet, none of them would want a friendly neighbour in Sri Lanka dissected, whatever the cause and reason. They would however still want the genuine concerns of the Tamil population in the southern neighbourhood addressed, full and proper, by the Colombo dispensation - nothing more, nothing less.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Colombo