By N Sathiya Moorthy
If someone in Sri Lanka thought that the jail-term handed down to Jayalalithaa, until then the Chief Minister of the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, would ease avoidable political tensions across the Palk Strait, they should be sadly mistaken. If they thought that pre-occupation with pending bail petition(s) and appeals against the Special Trial Court’s order in Bangalore, capital of the neighbouring State of Karnataka, would digress her attention away from major issues involving Sri Lanka, again they could be proved wrong.
At the end of the day, it’s about issues, and not just personalities. Or, it’s about perceptions on issues. In this case, it’s about perceptions of issues pertaining to Sri Lanka in sections of the polity and the people in Tamil Nadu. Whether right or wrong, those perceptions would not go away just because an incumbent Chief Minister is not around, or has been imprisoned in a corruption case, pertaining to her earlier term in office.
It did not go away when the rival DMK parent replaced Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK in office in 2006. It did not go away when Jayalalithaa in turn replaced DMK’s M Karunanidhi as Chief Minister in 2011. If anything, the intervening Eelam War IV only hardened political positions in Tamil Nadu viz the Sri Lankan Government on the two major issues concerning the south Indian State, the fishermen’s problem and the ethnic issue. The former is bilateral in nature, and the latter, in effect, a domestic issue in and of Sri Lanka but has acquired international relevance and consequent reference in the UNHRC and the like.
The competitive Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu is known to whip up issues and positions, not to mention sentiments and emotions, more in proportion to local political competition than what the situation on the ground in Sri Lanka might even demand. It does not pertain exclusively to issues relating to Sri Lanka. On domestic issues, be it on language (anti-Hindi), or river water disputes (with the neighbouring States of Karnataka and Kerala, respectively on the Cauvery and Mullaperiyar dam storage-height), the DMK and the AIADMK, the PMK and the MDMK have individually and competitively upped the ante viz the rest of ‘em all.
There is a perceptible difference in the case of Sri Lanka-related issues, though. It’s no more such mainline Dravidian parties that are that initiators of the cause, or the assigned propagators of the same. Post-war, the mainline parties, one after the other, has been replaced by new and varied groups, some of them faceless to date. Whether it’s the more vocalised ethnic issue, or the even more immediate fishermen’s problems, the larger Dravidian parties have come to eat out of their hands, one way or the other.
If Karunanidhi and the DMK failed, and someone else like Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK regained prominence after a break, it seemed to have been possibly built into the scheme. Rather, too eager not to let go of that limited electoral constituency but a larger political possibility, the party in Government has to either co-opt the new and smaller groups after a time, and also seek to drown them in the short-lived popularity of their own even faster.
Hijacking the cause
As is known, smaller and more recent outfits like actor-politician Seeman’s‘Naam Tamizhar Katchi’ (“We the Tamil Party”), faceless students organisations that are difficult to track and a host of other self-styled civil rights groups and individuals with unexplained deep pockets are at the forefront of the Tamil Nadu protests against Sri Lanka on the ethnic concerns in the island-nation and more particularly, accountability issues flowing from Eelam War IV. Mainline Dravidian/pan-Tamil parties have to take off from where these smaller entities have left, or hijack the cause and effect from them, without batting an eyelid.
It owes to perceptions, particularly among the hard-line sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, that the mainline Dravidian parties had mostly used the ethnic issue as an electoral cause for their own benefit nearer home in India than address what they thought were the real concerns. If anything, it’s the new-found, post-war Diaspora love for new groups and leaderships to carry their message across Tamil Nadu and to whichever Government in Delhi.
In a way, at least these sections of the Diaspora seem to believe that the orchestrated competitive pressure exerted by this smaller groups that’s behind the Tamil Nadu Assembly, with Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister, having to pass a unanimous resolution for a referendum in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka on the future political and administrative set-up. The Diaspora hand got revealed even more than usual when the resolution said that they too should have the right to vote in such a referendum.
That it’s against the official position of the elected Tamil National Alliance (TNA) administration in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province goes without saying. The TNA still sticks to the early post-war position of a negotiated settlement within a united Sri Lanka.
It remains to be seen what message the resolutions passed by the dominant ITAK leader of the TNA at its 15th national conference at Vavuniya in early September has on the Tamil cause and for the Tamil masses, both inside and outside Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu cannot be left out.
Entering the fray directly
On the fishing issue, for instance, gone are the days when political parties like the CPI and MDMK in particular used to highlight the mid-sea plight of southern Tamil Nadu’s fisher-folk. While the DMK, AIADMK and the likes of‘Naam Thamizhar Katchi’ are all there, lending a voice of sympathy and support as always, lately, fisher-folk and their organisations along the southern coast have entered the fray more directly.
It owes to their not wanting competitive politics of the other kind neutralising their collective position, and at the same time be able to negotiate directly with the Governments in India and Sri Lanka, over the head of the polity of whatever kind.
Yet, with the recurrence of mid-sea episodes, mainly arrest of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and their detention in local prisons on court orders, the fisher-folk in the State do acknowledge the political support that they require.
To raise their concerns in the State Assembly and the national Parliament, they need the political parties. With Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK having a substantial number of seats in the State Assembly and swept the Lok Sabha polls in May 2014, the party and the leader have become their mascot. It could not have been otherwise or the other way round, either.
Suffice thus is to point out that within days of becoming Chief Minister in Jayalalithaa’s place after her conviction and imprisonment, AIADMK’s O Panneerselvam shot off a missive to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in true Jaya style, on the plight and fate of TN fishermen arrested by the Sri Lanka Navy only the previous day. He has since followed it up with another missive, too, after yet another episode of the kind.
This one, like an occasional alternate from Jayalalithaa when in power, too has underlined the State’s demand for the Centre’s funding to rehabilitate the TN fishermen. Under the circumstances, the reference seems to be to deep-sea fishing, an alternate to the troubled and controversial trawler-fishing by TN fishermen, across the Palk Strait and close to the Sri Lankan Tamil provincial coastline.
If there were no missives of the kind in between, it might have owed also to the Sri Lankan Government freeing more Tamil Nadu fishermen, arrested on earlier occasions. ]
Whether or not those releases had to do with the earlier New York meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and PM Modi, they did serve an immediate purpose. But that too seems to be giving way, with the ruling AIADMK returning to the missive-war with the Centre, as always in these months after the party’s return to power after the 2011 Assembly elections in the State.
There has remained a perception in Sri Lanka, particularly in government and certain sections of the majority Sinhala, polity that those of the Governments and polity in Tamil Nadu and those at the national-level in India, on these two issues, are dissimilar.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. Successive Governments in Tamil Nadu and at the Centre have shared similar concerns over the fate of Indian fishermen and of the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka.
They have most definitely differed on the diplomatic initiatives and options available to India on these fronts – and the kind of solutions that could be considered.
To jump to the conclusion that the Government of India would lower its guard on the fishermen problems or wish away the ethnic issue in the absence of Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister should be a revived exhibition of continued Sri Lankan ignorance of the ground situation. Such hopes had been held in the past, branding then Chief Minister Karunanidhi as pan-Tamil or pro-LTTE.
Such hopes, also involving expectations for Jayalalithaa to return to power in the 2011 Assembly elections produced exactly opposite results. It cannot be different now.
At the end of the day, a weakened voice from Tamil Nadu on either or both these issues would add to the responsibilities of the Government of India. It could but not necessarily would provide the required space for manoeuvrability. Be it the 13-A or the IPKF induction in the Eighties, or the Katchchativu agreements of 1974 and 1976, the Tamil Nadu polity and whichever government that has been in power have claimed that they were neither consulted, nor their concurrence taken in the matter(s).
On the political side, too, under pressure to expand the electoral base between now and the next Lok Sabha polls five years hence, the ruling BJP at the Centre cannot be seen as being insensitive to Tamil Nadu’s concerns on these two issues, now or later.
With the State Assembly polls anyway scheduled for May 2016, the TN BJP leadership has been taking a hard-line stand on both, particularly after Modi became Prime Minister in May. If nothing else, the party needs to retain its DMDK, PMK and MDMK allies from the Lok Sabha polls for 2016, all of whom have a definitive position and posturing on Sri Lanka-related issues. In the absence of a ‘Modi wave’ of the Lok Sabha polls kind, the BJP would have to play accommodation than assertion in 2016 and even beyond – and not the other way round.
Yet, there is no denying the window of opportunity that the current political situation in Tamil Nadu may have provided the Sri Lankan Government and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to address the larger and genuine concerns involving the ethnic issue on the one hand and the fishermen’ problem on the other.
Sure enough, the Indian Centre is more approachable, both in terms of form and content, than the Tamil Nadu Government and polity they are shy of being caught in the act by political competitors nearer home than any genuine concern for resolving both problems without involving the Sri Lankan Government. It cannot afford to lose (out on) the opportunity.
Having identified in Jayalalithaa a strong and popular leader talking their language on the ethnic issue and at the same time, a Chief Minister, who reflected their moods and sentiments of these sections of the Diaspora have been caught-off-guard. The systematic media black-out of the Bangalore court proceedings across India until the Judgment Day meant that the Diaspora too had lost sight of the possibilities.
The Diaspora thus needs to rethink their strategy for Tamil Nadu, and regroup a second-line, which may now be shy of batting for them beyond a point, they having understood the Diaspora’s LTTE-linked philosophy and strategy.
That strategy has always put the message far ahead of the messenger.
Their ultimate goal of a separate State has been the philosophy.
The messenger, whoever is politically dependable and electorally attractive – whether in Sri Lanka or India, Norway or Canada has only been the tactic. Worse still, they have always remained only a part of the tactic!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)