Modi-Fying The Indian Stand On Ethnic Issue

images (1)N. Sathiya Moorthy

If anyone thought that they could fool around with India’s new, ‘inexperienced’ and ‘un-tested’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi on foreign policy issues in particular, news reports about his post-inauguration meetings with visiting Heads of Governments from SAARC nations suggest otherwise. Not only were those meeting more than a courtesy call, PM Modi is also reported to have discussed bilateral issues with each one of them in some detail. It was no different when Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with Prime Minister Modi. Nor would it be any different as and when a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation calls on the new Indian Prime Minister, for which they have already sought an early appointment.

The Indian position is a balanced approach – and will continue to remain so. A political solution to the ethnic issue should thus be found within a ‘united Sri Lanka’. Translated, India will not encourage/countenance any more talk of a ‘separate State’ within the Sri Lankan territory. It is easy for ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ hard-liners in the Government and outside to argue that 13-A was ab initio unacceptable. No law or rule becomes acceptable to all sections of any society at any point in time. In context, for larger and lasting ethnic peace, the Tamils too need to be told that the Sri Lankan State wants them, too, in a ‘united Sri Lanka’.

The JHU and the National Freedom Front (NFF), two of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s partners in the ruling combine, as usual have started talking tough on the ethnic issue. Their concerns are over other aspects of anti-incumbency factor affecting their Government’s continued popularity. With presidential polls and parliamentary elections not far away, they have got to worry. As in the past, they however need the ethnic camouflage to divert cadre-attention. If it did not pay, they would need to justify their possible return to the non-existing political/electoral middle-road.

It’s some time the Government, President Rajapaksa in particular, called their collective bluff, presented not-so-collectively as yet. Should the Government and the rest of the existing Opposition, including the UNP and the TNA agreed to a 13-plus, then the two parties cannot go to the Opposition combine. Any additional popularity for the Rajapaksa leadership flowing out of a 13-plus agreement would mean that the Government could do without any crutch of the JHU/NFF kind.

Powerless, ineffectual
The TNA too needs to display statecraft, now that they have come to be the selected and elected administrators of the Tamil-majority Northern Province. Their larger picture should be about the day when a Tamil – if not NPC Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran as was touted recently — being accepted as the elected president of the Sri Lankan nation. It need not and should not be a ‘separate state’.

Modi’s External Affairs Minister (EAM), Sushma Swaraj as Leader of the BJP Opposition in the Lok Sabha, had led an all-party delegation to Sri Lanka in 2012. On the occasion, she reiterated the position of the then Indian Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for the TNA to join the Parliament Select Committee (PSC). On President Rajapaksa’s return from India, PSC Leader and Leader of the House, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has reiterated the Government’s insistence on – and commitment to – the PSC process. The TNA’s demands for 13-plus and the JHU/JVP propositions for 13-minus fall within the PSC review.
The international community is powerless and ineffectual on this score. The Indian experience with the 13-A is precisely that. So was/is the Sri Lankan Tamils’ experience. It has to be an internal process in Sri Lanka.

Just now, the US and the rest of the West are concerned about HR violations. Immersed in their own priorities as nations and peoples would be – and should also be at times – they have no time for the Tamils’ political cause, concerns and aspirations.

The TNA should have nothing to fear in a PSC, just as they may have nothing to expect. The UNP had authored 13-A, and has not reneged on the same. Fonseka, it was said, had signed a MoU on the subject for the TNA to back him in the post-war presidential elections of 2010. At last count, 31 MPs from the ruling alliance, including veteran ministers of all political and ethnic hues, were supportive and sympathetic to the Tamils’ cause. The TNA did not take the cue then. It can take the initiative now.
The numbers may not still add up, but at least that should set the Government thinking. The TNA has nothing to lose that way, and everything to gain.

Cut from the same cloth

Prime Minister Modi can make a difference to the Indian approach, not even through the strength of his parliamentary majority or the collective strength of his BJP-NDA combine in the Indian Lok Sabha. Instead, the strength of his untested – and hence unpredictable – personality could make the difference in bilateral and international affairs, and in situations such as the one existing on the ‘ethnic issue’, both in India and Sri Lanka.

In his time, President Rajapaksa was as earthy as LTTE’s Prabhakaran. Compared to all the elite Tamil leaders that the Government had handled before Prabhakaran, and all the elite Government leaderships that Prabhakaran had got accustomed to, the Rajapaksa-Prabhakran combination made the difference. President Rajapaksa could think and act the way Prabhakaran alone could do before him. Prabhakaran lost.

The TNA lost a golden opportunity for the party’s Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran to meet India’s new Prime Minister in President Rajapaksa’s company, and be a part of the bilateral discussion – or, at least witness it. Had Wigneswaran accepted – and was allowed to accept – President Rajapaksa’s invitation for him to join the official delegation to Delhi, a substantial beginning could have been made.

Now, if the TNA continues to be seen as intransigent on the PSC question and other efforts to find a political solution to power-devolution, they would be seen as continuing to play the long-term ‘separatist card’ of the Diaspora, or the HR-linked geo-strategic initiatives of the West, or both. Having initiated the PSC process, the Sri Lankan Government seems to be doing enough to put off the TNA on allied fronts. The TNA in turn, and the NPC in particular, has passed every resolution that can be passed to embarrass, and at times challenge the Centre and the Sri Lankan State. They have done next to nothing in terms of political administration even with the limited powers that the Centre is ready to share with the Province.

Deflecting Indian Concerns

On return from Delhi, President Rajapaksa has reportedly directed his officials to fast-pace work on the Sampur power-plant in the Eastern Province, which is also of interest to India. It cannot deflect Indian concerns on the ‘ethnic issue’ or larger geo-strategic issues, some of which emanate in the former. Minister Siripala de Silva reportedly said that that the Government would ‘cooperate with India always but no one should interfere with the internal affairs of the country’.

In what’s possibly an unprecedented move, TNA leader R Sampanthan has since written to Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, for a meeting with her. Having deliberately stayed away from ‘Tamil Nadu politics’ and resisted the temptation to meet with incumbent chief ministers in the post-war years until now, the TNA seems to be wanting to provoke the Tamil Nadu Government against the Centre, and vice versa.

It’s not as if Jayalalithaa cannot play a mediatory role, like her political mentor and one-time predecessor the late M G Ramachandran. Ever since he came to power, President Rajapaksa has been seeking such intervention from successive Tamil Nadu chief ministers – though there are only two by name, Jayalalithaa and rival DMK’s M Karunanidhi. PM Modi having declared time and again that his leadership would address issues of concerns to the States in India, his Government would know when and how to draw upon Jayalalithaa’s leadership qualities.

The TNA cannot continue to fire the Diaspora’s salvos, and expect it not to boomerang – on both.
Unlike his predecessors in office and the rest of the Indian polity, Prime Minister Modi may not have heard either the unending tales of woes from the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil population and polity, even once in the past. His politics would show that he does not seem to have the patience and time, to be talked out of anything – and into nothing. With India’s two-term maximum period at UNHRC ending this year, it may be better-placed than in the past years, to be of use to all stakeholders to the ‘ethnic issue’ than may be thought otherwise.

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

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