National interest to remain predominant in India’s ties with SL

1036782485fea6-1INDIA, NEW DELHI : In this handout photograph released by the Presidential Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan), Indian President Pranab Mukjerjee (R) presents a letter to Indian prime minister-elect Narendra Modi at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on May 20, 2014. India’s prime minister-elect Narendra Modi choked back tears and promised to try to live up to expectations as he made his first visit to parliament since his sweeping election victory. AFP

The position that India’s national interest will remain predominant in her ties with Sri Lanka, regardless of which political party coalition or personality comes to power at that country’s centre, should be a self-evident truth to those knowledgeable about inter-state relations and behaviour. But it would need to be reiterated here, on account of some lingering Lankan misperceptions on these issues.

For example, there is a naïve belief among some influential local sections that Sri Lanka would find it in some way easier to handle her relations with India, now that the BJP and Narendra Modi are holding the reins of central governance.

Sri Lanka would need to guard against simple-mindedness in foreign policy related matters, as in anything else which is of vital interest to it. Somehow, the belief gained ground, among local ruling and other influential circles, in the years of Congress rule, that a BJP government at India’s centre, would deal with Sri Lanka with what was seen as exceptional empathy.

 

It is not quite clear as to what the basis of this assumption is, but it could be surmised with some certainty that what the relevant Lankan sections perceived as ideological and ‘soul’ affinity, between the present Lankan government and the BJP, was the foundation of this belief. That is, two nationalist regimes are assumed to share common policy perceptions and act in concert.

 

The Sri Lankan government is on record as hoping for ‘improved relations’ between Sri Lanka and India in the coming Modi years but what these ‘improvements’ would consist of is not at all clear. The impartial observer of Indo-Lanka relations is likely to take the view that these ties, although not ‘rosy’ in the extreme, have been, generally, unruffled and amicable. They could not get any better, considering the compulsions on the Indian centre in particular and these constraints are unlikely to change even under a BJP administration. So, the Lankan government would need to guard against being unrealistic in its expectations, in this context of matters.

 

Is the Lankan government expecting the Modi administration to soft-pedal the need for the Lankan state to meet the legitimate needs and aspirations of the local Tamil community? Is it expecting the in-coming Indian government to ‘go soft’ on the 13th amendment and the more important LLRC recommendations? If so, it is being naïve.

 

It is true that the BJP would be having a steamroller majority in the Lok Sabha but in the crucial state of Tamil Nadu it is Jayalalitha’s AIADMK that holds sway. In fact, the AIADMK administration in Tamil Nadu is in even a better position after the recent general election to ensure that the centre adopts a policy towards Sri Lanka which would be more sensitive than before to the just needs of the local Tamil community. Needless to say, no Indian central government could afford to have a combative and restless Tamil Nadu government. In the event of having to choose between having ‘smooth’ ties with Sri Lanka and ensuring political and social stability in Tamil Nadu, it goes without saying that the Indian centre would opt for the latter because it would be in India’s national interest to do so. In other words, the national interest would prevail over other considerations. This will be so, irrespective of who governs India.

 

Rather than entertain unrealistic hopes about Indian central governments, Sri Lanka would do better to explore ways of relating more amicably to the Tamil Nadu government. Even better still would be a progressive implementation of the LLRC recommendations by the Lankan government. In other words, Sri Lanka should steadily and exemplarily work towards resolving its conflict by political means. Pandering, on the part of the Lankan government, to majoritarian chauvinism would prove extremely costly in terms of social peace, and take this country further down the road of division.

 

Accordingly, we are unlikely to see any substantive changes to India’s Sri Lanka policy under the Modi administration, although there could be a greater sensitivity in New Delhi to those matters that cause Sri Lanka some special discomfiture, in relation to our conflict.

 

It is true that the BJP’s support base is India’s Hindu majority but it is highly unlikely that when in government the BJP would rule indiscreetly on the basis of policies which would drive India’s communities against each other. No Indian central government could afford to do this and we are unlikely to see this happening now, although Hindu nationalist demands on the Modi government could be expected to mount. An important task for the in-coming government would be to manage these demands and ensure inter-communal harmony and social peace. A failure to treat the acquiring of these governing capabilities as a priority could prove costly for India.

 

With regard to the regional political situation, India is likely to place special emphasis on improving its ties with Pakistan, while ensuring unruffled, amicable ties with its other South Asian neighbours as well. It must be remembered that Indo-Pakistani relations witnessed a notable improvement in the Vajpayee years. It was clear that the then BJP government was not intent on reaping short term political gain by getting into a collision course with Pakistan. This is likely to be so even in an India under Modi, although no pains should be spared by all the states of South Asia to further nurture regional amity.

 

Apparently, it was Modi’s perceived capabilities as an economic manager that weighed very heavily with the Indian electorate and won for him the majority of its votes. It is open to question whether communalism was a predominant issue in the elections. Accordingly, the Modi government would be deeply obliged to deliver on the economic front or face voter disaffection. At a time when economics is seen to be driving politics, the adoption of an economic paradigm by the Indian centre which would combine growth with equity, would prove extremely beneficial from the point of view of building bridges among communities. This too would emerge as a major challenge for the centre.