Originally Published 2012-03-23 00:00:00 Published on Mar 23, 2012
Seeing an LTTE ghost where none may exist across the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, the Sri Lankan authorities could be expected to act even more feverishly in the coming months -- the Geneva vote having emboldened separatist Diaspora groups to revive their failed misadventure, in a new avtar and under a 'new world order'!
Sri Lanka vote: Game-changer of a different kind?
India-Sri Lanka relations will not be the same again. It can improve in ways that there is greater understanding and more frequent consultations than in these months after the conclusion of ’Eelam War-IV’. It could deteriorate, owing to the kind of political pressures closer home in Colombo, as Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister G L Periris said in an obvious reference to the ’Tamil Nadu factor’ in India deciding to vote in favour of the US-sponsored resolution on ’accountability issues’ at the UNHRC in Geneva. In relation to the ethnic issue, which was at the centre of the Geneva vote, critics of the Sri Lankan State, both inside the country and outside, have given a name for political pressures being brought over the Colombo dispensation over these many decades: ’Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’, with perceived yet unproven capacity to upturn electoral equations and results, too.

Reporting from Colombo on the impending UNHRC vote on the morning of the decisive UNHRC meet on March 22, The Hindu said the earlier Indian declaration that New Delhi was ’inclined’ to vote in favour of the US-sponsored resolution was seen as the ’game-changer’ at Geneva. Yet, it is the very Geneva vote that might have already become the ’game-changer’ in bilateral relations between the two South Asian nations. That situation would not have changed even if India had voted in Sri Lanka’s favour after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made his famous ’inclined’ statement in Parliament. The Government in Colombo would have appreciated the last-minute change in the Indian position (though it was not to be) but the political pressure that Peiris talked about would still be a factor that the Sri Lankan leadership -- and by extension the larger polity -- would have ignored, whatever their personal and organisational views, otherwise.

Questions will be asked, particularly in Colombo, about the goal and strategy of Colombo in regard to the ’Geneva fiasco’, if only that could be dubbed so. Fair enough, it might have already erased some of the larger-than-life public perception that the Sri Lankan population in generation, and the Sinhala society in particular, have had of President Mahinda Rajapaksa ever since the successful elimination of the dreaded LTTE from the Eastern theatre in 2007, followed by the final exit of the LTTE in the North, two summers later. Today, the vote in Geneva, coupled with the Indian decision, may have revived subterranean anti-India perceptions in sections of the Sinhala polity and Sri Lankan strategic community, both of which had lost their arguments after bonhomie became the password for bilateral relations in the years of ’Eelam War IV’. Independent of the fate of the UNHRC vote, the average Tamil in Sri Lanka would have lost his sleep the day the mighty US began flexing its muscle on what they would see as the pro-LTTE Diaspora side. Instead, they would have had nightmares of the past.

Neighbourhood concerns and geo-strategic considerations

The Geneva vote, if not taken in the right spirit and context in Colombo, could have far-reaching consequences for bilateral relations, starting with strategic security issues. In a coalition Government as in India, the role of the pressure-groups within the Government should not be under-estimated. The fact that the SLFP leader of the ruling UPFA coalition too is not a monolith arrangement, and has both traditional dissidents lurking on the sides and neo-SLFP groups who not very long ago had belonged elsewhere, the complexities of even the Colombo dispensation delivering on President Rajapaksa’s promises on the power-devolution front are much more complex than is understood in Tamil Nadu, and much of the rest of the world. New Delhi having worked hard and fast to reverse the post-IPKF ties with Sri Lanka, it can miss the bus altogether, and all over again within a short , if it did not take recourse to corrective measures that convinces Sri Lanka, and not just Colombo, that things could have gone worse but for the Indian engagement with the sponsors of the resolution at Geneva.

Yet, the point remains, other neighbours of India, namely, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives (the last three members of the shared SAARC), had voted with Sri Lanka, which itself was not a voting-member this time round, should not be taken lightly. A combination of factors, on much of which New Delhi might not have control, could push the Government of India into a corner in neighbourhood relations, as now has seemingly be the case as far as the ’Tamil Nadu factor’ on the Geneva resolution went. At the end of the day, not only the allies and adversaries of the Congress leader of the UPA coalition at the Centre were applying pressure. Even senior Congress leaders, starting with Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), V Narayanaswamy, and State Congress president, B S Gnanadesikan, had to sing the same tune, owing to cadre pressure and constituency pressure, apart from the genuine Tamil concerns in the State.

Not very long ago, Prime Minister Singh mentioned INGOs in the US and Scandinavian countries as among those funding the anti-nuclear protest on the Koodamkulam power project, incidentally in Tamil Nadu. He made no reference to the Governments in this country, and it was clear that the Government of India had been able to make a matured approach to bilateral relations with all countries on the basis of issues on hand. Thus, New Delhi had come strongly against Norway in what the Indian media has largely publicised as the ’child protection case’ involving an Indian couple in that country. Yet, India voted with the two countries on the UNHRC vote. Earlier in 2009, India, Pakistan and China created history of sorts when the three of them joined hands despite bilateral discomfort between New Delhi and the other two, and to work near-openly defeat an anti-Sri Lanka resolution of the kind at the very same UNHRC, then sponsored by the EU, instead. They also campaigned to get a pro-Sri Lanka counter-resolution passed at the time. Yet, nations, like people, have short memories.

’Tamil Nadu factor’ and federal principles

The Indian vote in Geneva was a reflection of the internal political compulsions brought on it by the Tamil Nadu sentiments. There was clear evidence on the ground that the sentiments were more popular and widespread this time than during the bloody yet concluding days of ’Eelam War IV’ and the Sri Lanka Army’s acknowledged killing of Prabhakaran. The traditional argument that it was a product of ’competitive Dravidian politics’ did not hold any more, as the IT generation nearer home accessed what they perceived as hard-nosed information available on the net and on television screens. The argument that Sri Lanka was fighting the world’s most dreaded terrorist organisation and leader was not available. Yet, the questions were not necessarily about ’accountability issues’ but larger issues of resolving the ’ethnic issue’ through political negotiations in near-three years, post-war.

However, questions would still need to be asked and answered on the role and contribution of the States in foreign policy and security policy formulations in the ’coalition era’, which responsibility under the Constitution was deliberately conferred on the Union of India, exclusively, with no State participation. Independent of the compulsions of coalition politics, there have been genuine concerns in Tamil Nadu about the Sri Lankan situation, including the ’fishermen’s issue’ involving Tamil Nadu. The West Bengal Government reviewed water-sharing with neighbouring Bangladesh after change of political leadership in the State, but that has consequences for foreign and at times security policies. Rather than allowing such things to drift and take their course, as has happened with the nation’s Sri Lanka policy for most part of the past decades, the Centre should initiate discussions with the stake-holders and create mechanisms, were not only engagement with States is considered but also the delineating line, clearly drawn.

In the Sri Lanka context, successive Prime Ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee (BJP) and the Manmohan Singh (Congress) in recent times have taken not only the Tamil Nadu Government but also their respective coalition partner from the State into confidence. In a rare exception, both leaders as Prime Minister had also talked to MDMK’s Vaiko, who has not exactly been a favourite of either of the two ’Dravidian majors’, namely, DMK and AIADMK. It is inconceivable that Vaiko’s offices would have been used to negotiate with a banned organisation in the country that the LTTE continues to be, yet after every meeting with the Prime Minister of the day, Vaiko had gone to town with his version of the meeting -- which should have been handled in a discreet way. So, institutional mechanisms, while needing to be formal, should also have informal courses, where discretion should as much be the key word as ’national interest and security’.

Though substantive improvement has been recorded in bilateral talks between India and Sri Lanka on resolving the fishermen’s issue in recent months and years, the Government and political parties in the State can be expected to cite India’s Geneva vote as among the reasons behind their continual charges of "increased harassment of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy", and possibly by Tamil fishers of the Northern Province in that country, in the coming months. Seeing an LTTE ghost where none may exist across the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar that connect the two countries, the Sri Lankan authorities, and their Navy in particular, could be expected to act even more feverishly in the coming months -- the Geneva vote having emboldened separatist Diaspora groups to revive their failed misadventure, in a new avtar and under a ’new world order’!

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

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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