By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Just hours in to his new job, Narendra Modi, India’s new Prime Minister, placed his cards firmly on the table, during his first bilateral discussion with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in New Delhi.
On 27 May, it was succinctly conveyed to the island’s President Rajapaksa, that when it came to Sri Lanka, the new Indian administration was committed to three things:
- Expeditious full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution,
- A lasting political solution that would not compromise Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity
- As well as strong economic and cultural ties – in that order.
The difference here is, unlike in Sri Lanka, where the policy of one government is completely replaced by another and often a matter of politics than policy, the Indian policy framework sees continuity. When it comes to the implementation of the 13th Amendment, the BJP views it no differently to the Congress, the initiator of the process. BJP now demands delivery on the promises made with no delaying tactics. In the absence of war, Colombo’s excuses have been exhausted.
Weak Congress rule
The difference however, lies elsewhere. Delhi under Congress rule was weak, even in demanding delivery on promises made – including the full implementation of the 13th Amendment or the President Rajapaksa’s own idea – 13 Plus.
Congress insisted on delivery, largely when its Tamil Nadu allies pressurised the Centre to adopt stances, and these included boycotting the Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo last November and extending support to a UNHRC solution on Sri Lanka this March, decisions with no precedents.
Not so is Modi’s BJP, which does not need to rely on constituent partners for support and therefore can speak without fear. And true to Narendra Modi’s no-nonsense style, he has required Sri Lanka to deliver on its promises, insisting that India would play a strong and supportive role.
“It is natural for India to see continuity in this regard. It is an old commitment and one in which India had a role to play. Devolving power will enhance chances for lasting peace, build trust among communities and in short, the complete implementation of the Constitutional Amendment will be in Sri Lanka’s best interests,” former BJP Spokesperson and newly-appointed Minister of State for Commerce and Industry (Independent Charge), Nirmala Sitharaman said.
But for the Sri Lankan Government, implementation of the 13th Amendment is – though a priority – is not the first.
“There is a Provincial Council in the North, which was very much tied to India’s political expectations of Sri Lanka. Four years after the war, it is now established and functional. The two countries need to forge stronger ties,” Deputy Minister of External Affairs, Neomal Perera said. While there is hardly any clarity on what is meant by ’13 Plus’, the party in office in the island’s North – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – is of the view that ‘full implementation’ should mean and include, sharing of police and land powers.
“The absence of it demonstrates a lack of trust and a violation of a constitutional provision drawing from which, the Provincial Councils have been established in the first place,” asserts Suresh Premachandran.
It was reported that soon after his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi, Modi has urged President Rajapaksa to ensure there is equity, justice and dignity for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, and that the process should begin with the full implementation of the 13th Amendment.
Yet, not everyone within the BJP holds similar ideas about devolution of power in the Sri Lankan context.
Dr. Subramanian Swamy, a BJP stalwart and a cheerleader for Sri Lanka, feels that what exact powers should be devolved is a matter for Sri Lanka.
“It is good that the BJP is calling for the sharing of power, which had been India’s consistent stance. There is a Northern Provincial Council now, which is progress in itself. Let Sri Lankan politicians decide on land and police powers. India should only support a decision by Sri Lankan politicians, but there should not be any support for secessionist moves,” Swamy said.
It is Swamy’s belief that if not for the undue pressure by Tamil Nadu political allies on the Congress, the discussion would have been far more fruitful. “What was happening in Tamil Nadu during the past two years was nothing short of political lunacy. It left its imprint and the ouster of those fringe elements with extremist views reflect the thinking of the average Indian voter. The new leadership is likely to take a cue from that. He has already made some interesting moves which reflect a pragmatic approach towards Sri Lanka.”
The BJP, according its leaders, is keen to see genuine attempts made to share power between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.
“Devolution of power according to the 13th Amendment is also the BJP’s well-considered position, for achieving lasting peace in Sri Lanka. The current External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, has made the party position known and is likely to initiate a dialogue on the same. Let us clarify one thing here. The BJP does not, and will not, advocate devolution at the cost of territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan State. BJP stands for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and for a lasing political solution within a united Sri Lanka of which the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is the starting point,” explained Sitharaman.
Yet, sources from New Delhi confirm the Modi administration was not likely to allow Colombo to vacillate. There had been some signals transmitted from Delhi, both to Tamil Nadu and Colombo, that time buying will not be respected.
By not giving into Tamil Nadu’s demand that President Rajapaksa not be invited to the oath taking ceremony of the new Indian Premier, Modi has shown that he would not be dictated to and was not likely to act according to Tamil Nadu whims. By prioritizing Rajapaksa over Tamil Nadu, a crucial State where Modi still needs support in order to implement his vision for India, he has also conveyed to Colombo, the need for reciprocity.
It can come in the form of addressing the legitimate grievances of the Tamil population in the North. Failure to address such could prove costly to both the countries and New Delhi is likely to prevent any eruptions in Tamil Nadu in the future, over the same issue.
The first attempt to test the waters, according to analysts, was a request but Tamil political parties within his NDA and outside, to send a separate invitation to C. V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of the Northern Province, to attend the swearing-in on 26 May. This request was considered ‘unusual’ and even ‘improper’ by the new administration, and was promptly turned down.
“By doing so, Modi has ensured that Tamil Nadu understands that it was not Manmohan Singh in office. The BJP will not be swayed the way Congress was. Sadly, these considerations were merely political and the decisions were to the detriment of both the countries,” a BJP aide explained.
The fact that the Modi administration would insist on delivery on the promises already made with a sense of urgency is something Sri Lanka’s main opposition too concedes.
According to UNP General Secretary, Tissa Attanayake, it would not be possible to for Sri Lanka to resort to delaying tactics any longer. “If the Congress Government had its own domestic concerns that made it difficult to be as decisive as they wished to be, the new administration is not going to be like that. It is strong and will insist on delivery on promises.”
Though too early in the day to predict, political analysts claim that Delhi would eventually begin to crack the whip on the twin issues of full implementation of the 13th Amendment and a reconciliation process that genuinely addresses the grievances of the island’s Tamil community.
“Colombo had the advantage then, with the Congress on bended knees and answering to Tamil Nadu’s political mavericks. That’s because the Congress was weak. I don’t see aggressive steps being taken, but New Delhi will expect Colombo to take appropriate action,”
Dr. Swamy added.
Authoritative sources from New Delhi said, while a nuanced discussion on the immediate concerns would be taken up during bilateral in the coming months, Modi is seen as being extremely keen to ‘bring closure to a festering would’ that affects both Colombo and Delhi, though differently.
In fact, it is said that Colombo’s failure to ensure full implementation as pledged, and to explain the contours of what was envisaged in a ’13 Plus,’ soured relations between the two countries, in the recent past. It was viewed as an affront and a refusal by Colombo to ensure meaningful devolution that would strengthen the provincial bodies. It resulted in Congress resorting to actions that were seem unfriendly towards Sri Lanka, including the boycott of CHOGM and the decision to support a UNHRC Resolution on the island’s human rights record.
“Make no mistake. It was seen as if President Rajapaksa has reneged on his promises to the Congress administration. The new administration will be strong in its demands,” a BJP aide with expertise on foreign policy commented. “There will be no turning back.”
Supportive of a merged North-east, the first Chief Minister of the united North-eastern Provincial Council, Varatharaja Perumal, is of the view that the demerge has complicated an already complex political issue that 13th Amendment sought to address.
“The governments have shied away from devolving land and police powers, which is a violation of the Constitution. These powers are not excessive but practical measures that are required for the administering of a Province. Non- implementation of certain aspects of the 13th Amendment is nothing short of a violation of the supreme law of the country, and should be treated as such,” Perumal insisted.
As pointed out by Perumal, among the first demands made by the TNA-led Northern Provincial Council was to have full powers devolved according to Constitutional requirements. “There shouldn’t be a debate on this manner. It is practice and an old undertaking,” added Premachandran.
As the debate continues, it is learnt that the newly installed BJP is likely to initiate a fresh dialogue with Colombo to revisit old concerns. By then, Colombo will be expected to have its positions clear – as well as its plans for implementing a constitutional amendment that is two decades old.
implementation of 13 A in SL’s interest – Sitharaman
The new Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has called for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Is it seen as the answer by the BJP, to Sri Lanka’s ethnic question?
A: No. It is but the start. However, BJP’s role will be to support our neighbour to achieve peace, while ensuring old commitments.
There are other processes in your country and they should continue. India will not interfere – but will support.
Why the sense of urgency to have these obligations fulfilled?
A: These are not even new undertakings, but old agreements. Their fulfillment will be in the best interest of Sri Lanka.
It had been a prime driver in Tamil Nadu politics. India has good reason to have these issues addressed.
Q: Will India likely to insist on 13 Plus?
A: The contours of a solution lie in the hands of the Sri Lankan administration and her people.
What India would wish to see is the undertakings to New Delhi honoured.
Q: Does the BJP think both land and police powers should be devolved, which is the contentious point here?
A: The BJP’s position is clear. It stands for full implementation of the 13th Amendment. In its entirety. Going beyond this commitment is a matter for Sri Lanka.
Q; Colombo’s apprehensions are linked to a fear of placing such powers in the hands of groups that might promote a separatist cause. Doesn’t that fear real for India as well?
A: We are talking about giving expression to a constitutional amendment. It has mechanisms to deal with situations.
India will stand for a lasting political solution within a united Sri Lanka and in no way will it support any moves to cede. Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity is extremely important to India.