Modi, Mahinda, And More…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

14-underIndia’s Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi, has set a healthy precedent for all of South Asia to follow by inviting all neighbourhood leaders for his inauguration, including Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka’s President should be more than willing to accept the invitation.

In doing so, President Rajapaksa could be expected to wave away reservations, if any, from within, citing Modi’s outgoing Congress predecessor, Manmohan Singh, boycotting CHOGM last year, after raising hopes and controversies through the long run-up. If it came to that, he can be expected to silence those critics by pointing to the unprecedented new regional initiative, which the Sri Lankan Government has been pressing even for addressing domestic concerns like the ‘ethnic issue’ in the country. In doing so, the Rajapaksa camp would also recall for domestic detractors how Singh and Modi are different cups of tea, from political philosophies, to foreign policy initiatives and personality traits. The reference to Modi, unlike Singh and five other Indian Prime Ministers before him, being his own master, and his heading the first ‘politically stable government’ in a quarter century with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, too would not be missed, either.

Earthy, Successful

There are parallels to their political careers and acceptance-levels, both nearer home and afar. Both have proved to be earthy, successful and full of new ideas and initiatives (political to begin with), unlike most predecessors, making them appealing to the cadre-level and voter-left first, and later acceptable to their respective nation’s elite, too, even if by default. Both face problems with ‘minorities’ in their countries. Post-poll, Modi could claim credit for putting the past behind him and possibly for good – something that President Mahinda is yet to achieve, and possibly learn from the other.

It’s here that Modi could silence detractors – and/or render them ineffective – by successfully displaying his ‘Gujarat model’ of development to the entire length and breadth of an India that is much larger, diversified and divided than his native State may be. Sri Lanka is no match or patch on India in these departments. Yet, President Rajapaksa has not been able to ‘market’ his war-time ‘development model’ for the South to cover the war-torn Northern Tamil areas later, has not been able to market the same as a substitute for ‘democracy’ as his aides and advisors might have wished.

It also shows up the differences in the temperament of the constituencies that the two leaders have been addressing, and the circumstances in which each one of them have been placed. To be fair to Modi’s detractors in the Indian community, they were confined mostly to traditional political opponents and self-styled and self-defined ‘liberal’ sections of India’s urban elite. For long, the nation had come to believe that both these sections severally – and at times jointly – have been looking out for a cause(s) to keep them relevant and going.

By themselves, Gujarat’s ‘affected minorities’ and their immediate social/political counterparts from across the country did not gather pace or momentum to their perceived efforts, if at all, to opposing the Modi leadership or his ‘Gujarat model’, whether in the development sector or otherwise. ‘Anti-Modi’ barbs and attacks across the country were sourced to and resourced from across the borders. They were seen by most of India – including many in all ‘minority communities’ in India — and not just only one in many – as ‘anti-India terrorism’ that was rooted in history and ‘historic hatred’.

That again was/is not the case with Sri Lanka and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose copy-book is still blotted by accusations of the post-war unwillingness of the Sri Lankan State to take the Tamils on board. The fact that Modi and his BJP were in the Opposition at the national-level helped them immensely, in projecting other issues and concerns of the larger Indian population as more important and immediate than the decades-old ‘Gujarat riots’. In President Rajapaksa’s case, the bug stopped at his door-step, he being in power at the national-level, and his ruling SLFP-UPFA combine controlling the constitutionally-truncated yet politically-elected administration in eight of the nine Provinces. The power of the Executive Presidency and the ‘unitary State’ come with their baggage. The ‘Big Two’ political parties in the country, namely, the SLFP and the UNP, understand it while in the Opposition, but do not want to acknowledge it while in office.

Curiously, the ‘Gujarat riots’ per se did not cross the State’s borders, as used to be the case with most preceding incidents of communal violence in India. In post-war Sri Lanka, allegations of anti-Tamil ‘army excesses’ and ‘administrative over-do’ are now confined to the Tamil-exclusive Northern Province. In war-time Sri Lanka, LTTE terror targeted not only the Sri Lankan State, but also Sinhala-Buddhism as religion, and Sinhala-Buddhists as a people. That the LTTE targeted fellow-Tamils, citizenry, politicos and fellow-militants as much if not more is beside the point.

Where The Twine Won’t Meet

On international (read: West) opprobrium over human rights violations, there again, President Rajapaksa and incoming prime minister Modi have parallels. China did not condemn either, invited and welcomed both to the country. Russia has no comments to offer on Modi thus far, but has been backing the Rajapaksa Government at the UN and the UNHRC, among other international forums. The UNHRC is where the difference may lie. The Rajapaksa Government, after stalling it for sessions and years, is now faced with the reality of an UNHRC resolution for an ‘independent probe’ into ‘accountability issues’ – which now may go beyond ‘war crimes’ to include ‘everyday HR concerns’, if they could be dubbed thus. Modi never faced such charges, possibly also because the influential ‘Indian NRI/PIO constituencies did not have the stomach for it.

Rather, they were opposed to any international action against any Indian, as it hurt their national pride – and not certainly with Modi, as they had identified with the BJP at least for over two decades, and have remained so, since. It’s not the case with President Rajapaksa. The equally, if not more influential Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in particular, comprising a ‘solid vote-bank’ particularly in nations where they can influence electoral verdicts, makes the difference. It is unlike the numerically-larger Indian Diaspora (NRIs plus PIOs) that is still divided in very many ways, and is unilaterally and near-exclusively focussed on Pakistan and China, not necessarily in that order, among India’s neighbours.

Today, the US is wooing Modi as the unquestioned leader of India of our times after humiliating him and India by denying a State Chief Minister visa, all because it did not understand the dynamics and dynamism of the Indian democracy wholly as yet. The same has proved to be the case with Sri Lanka, too, up to and after a point. As President Rajapaksa reiterated a day after congratulating Modi on his election victory and inviting him to his nation, no foreign country can deny Sri Lanka its victory over terrorism and celebration of the peace. Against this, the island’s Tamil population want to ‘celebrate’ terrorism on the death anniversary of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The understanding/misunderstanding of the West lies in relative perceptions, and the inherent inability to appreciate the sufferings of a third-nation and a majority of its population under eternal LTTE threat. If they get to understand the same as it should be and not how their selective application of self-appreciating ‘liberal’ western thought would dictate, they would also appreciate the inherent deficiencies of an international probe against the need for an effective implementation of the LLRC. It is also where India differed from the West at the UNRC this time, the nation as a South Asian neighbour could appreciate the ground realities than any other regional or global power would even be able to think of understanding.

Where From Here?

Yet, if someone in Sri Lanka – Sinhala or Tamil – would think that the opening courtesy of inviting all SAARC Heads of Government to Modi’s inauguration was an end in itself, and they would not have to make amends for the past, they would be sadly mistaken. It’s one thing for a new government in Delhi to effectively side-line detractors from southern Tamil Nadu in wanting to extend courtesies of the kind. It’s another for them to come to any hasty conclusion that courtesies of the kind would be the way that a Modi Government would handle bilateral concerns of every kind – ethnic issue and fishers’ problem, trade and China.

After all, India abstained from UNHRC vote this time, owing to the technicality of the US resolution violating the principled Indian position, opposing any ‘international investigation’ of the kind now proposed for the first time in three years. Needless to point out, the original Indian position on the original drafts in the previous two years owed primarily to Sri Lanka not adhering to the unilateral commitments on a political solution that were given to India and the rest of the world – even when not asked for, but was still offered but not kept.

In post-war 2009, within a fortnight of the ‘victory’, India opposed an EU draft at the UNHRC precisely for similar reasons. If India went on to support what was dubbed an ‘Asian initiative’ and also campaigned for a successful counter-resolution, that too alongside Pakistan and China, the nation too was taken in by the unsolicited war-time commitments. India’s UNHRC-Sri Lanka role in the past three years were a reminder not only to the West but more so to Sri Lanka. A Modi-led India could be expected to take forward the last and latest initiative of the outgoing Manmohan Singh Government, in letter and spirit and on all fronts. The new prime minister will not have the distraction – hence the excuse – that the Singh dispensation had for much of its 10-year tenure in terms of the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’. Modi does not depend on Tamil Nadu for his parliamentary majority.

It will help him to appreciate the fact that the ‘ethnic issue’ is not Tamil Nadu-centric but Sri Lanka centric, hence the commitments made to the Government of India continue to remain as those commitments – and need to be implemented in and by Sri Lanka, and none else. In doing so, the Modi leadership would also come to realise that never ever before has the Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka made any commitment of any serious kind with the intent of keeping it. Wherever a commitment was made by the LTTE, it was known to have violated it. It’s the kind of one-way charge that the Tamils have been making against the Sri Lankan State and the divided Sinhala polity, all along.

It’s thus balancing between the Indian State’s equation with the Sri Lankan State and leadership on the one hand, and its ability to help the stakeholders in Sri Lanka to address the ‘legitimate aspirations’ of the Tamils in that country – which often extend notoriously to include elements of separatism, veiled, innocent-looking or otherwise. A strong leader from a strong nation, compared to a strong leader from a relatively weaker nation has responsibilities as much to the region as to his own nation and people. Narendra Damodar Modi as the new leader of a self-propelled India, back on the process of reinventing its past glory, can be expected to defend the region as a whole from the outside world, and yet defend the respective peoples from themselves and their governments, if either continued to show the unwitting tendency of going astray! Not just the Sinhala polity and leadership, but also the equally uncompromising and even more ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unaccountable’ Tamil leadership(s), particularly of the Diaspora variety, which has needed to be leashed by their host-governments, for long, could, well, find it in their time!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)