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How Jaya's victory changes Indo-Lanka relations

May 19, 2011 17:04 IST

After staging a spectacular victory over her bête noire M Karunanidhi-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu assembly elections, J Jayalalithaa, leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, has called upon the Indian government for action against the Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa for alleged war crimes and genocide of Tamils.

Speaking at her very first press conference, Jayalalithaa said "The President of Sri Lanka must be tried for war crimes and brought before the International Court of Law… India can no longer remain a silent spectator… If necessary, an economic blockade will have to be resorted to bring a recalcitrant Sri Lanka to heel."

What will be the effect of Jayalalithaa first salvo against Rajapaksa? How will it impact India's Sri Lanka policy? These are some of the questions likely to be debated more frequently in the coming months.

Whatever be the effect, Jayalalithaa now sworn in as the new chief minister of Tamil Nadu, has thrown a spanner in the uneasy equation New Delhi had built with Tamil Nadu's outgoing Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. And India's handling of Sri Lanka is likely to undergo a subtle change as a result of Jayalalithaa's rise to power in Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalithaa's negative views on New Delhi's handling of Sri Lanka issue are nothing new; in fact in the run up to the state elections, she had needled her opponent saying, "lives of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils could have been saved had Karunanidhi seriously considered withdrawing support to the Centre instead of threatening to withdraw support to it, as he was doing frequently."

However, Jayalalithaa's focus on Sri Lanka immediately after her electoral success shows it could be one of the key issues on her agenda in dealing with the Centre.

During her present tenure, Jayalalithaa appears to be determined to quickly fulfil her electoral promises; in fact she has set herself a deadline of 18 months to do so. On the very first day in office, she signed a slew of orders approving a number of freebies for the people including distribution of 20 kg of rice free to people below poverty line and an increase in old age pension.

And if Sri Lanka issue is within her 18-month agenda (as it appears) we can see more fireworks in New Delhi-Chennai relations in the coming days. The reason for this is simple: she does not belong to the ruling coalition in New Delhi and the Sri Lanka Tamil issue could become the foil for Jayalalithaa to needle the Centre as and when it suits her.

Jayalalithaa's approach to Sri Lanka Tamil issue in the past had been lukewarm though she had periodically been demanding the return of Kachativu to India. One of the main reasons for this was the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for whom she had no love lost. This was to be expected as her mentor and the founder of the AIADMK, MG Ramachandran had fully backed Rajiv Gandhi and the India-Sri Lanka agreement of 1987.

In fact in 2002 during her earlier term as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, she had arrested Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazagham for his vociferous support to the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran as the LTTE was a banned organisation in India.

However, her attitudes to the LTTE-led Eelam struggle took an about-turn after she struck a political alliance with Vaiko in 2006. Though she abandoned Vaiko in the recent election while cobbling up the AIADMK-led front, she appears to have retained her strong sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils. Is it only political expediency?

Though Jayalalithaa is well known for whimsical decision making (and reversing them), it would be facile to dismiss her comments on Sri Lanka Tamils as mere political opportunism. Vaiko is no more there as an ally to influence her, and after her thumping victory her need for any political posturing would be minimal. So it would only be fair to conclude that like thousands of her fellow countrymen, the Tamil Nadu chief minister has probably been genuinely moved by the UN panel report on war crimes and human rights violations during the Eelam War.

So Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to tread more cautiously on Sri Lanka Tamil issue now than ever before. Perhaps it was this caution that induced External Affairs Minister S M Krishna to ask his Sri Lankan counterpart Professor G L Peiris, during a recent three-day visit to New Delhi, to observe "restraint" while dealing with Indian fishermen who stray into its waters during talks.

The true test of India's attitudes to allegations of Sri Lanka war crimes will be when the issue comes up in UN human rights forum in the near future. Can India stand now as an unqualified supporter of Sri Lanka as it did on the last occasion? This is a question that Sri Lanka foreign office must be debating right now.

The rout of the DMK, an important partner in the Congress-led coalition in New Delhi, is likely to have far reaching consequences on the fate of its future status within the coalition. Already the Congress party has lost a lot of mileage in national politics for its role in ignoring the 2G scam for a long time and the unqualified political support it had extended to the DMK leader Karunanidhi, although DMK minister P Raja and M Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi were among the main accused.

On the other hand, the Congress party as a junior partner of the DMK's electoral front in the Tamil Nadu assembly poll suffered one of the worst drubbings in its history. To survive as a credible party in the state, the Congress has to take a serious relook at the future of its long term political relationship with the DMK, to survive. At the same time, DMK has the numbers in Parliament which will continue to be important in sustaining the Congress-led coalition in New Delhi.

The DMK is said to be unhappy with the congratulatory telephone call made by Congress President Sonia Gandhi to Jayalalithaa on her electoral victory. The DMK probably considers this as a move by Congress to build bridges with Jayalalithaa.

According to media reports the DMK was even considering of giving up the ministerial berths in New Delhi while continuing to support the Congress-led coalition in Parliament. (It is difficult to believe the DMK would consider such a move, as it needs to retain its footholds within the Central cabinet more than ever before, as 2G case is rapidly building up).

At the same time, Jayalalithaa will also have some political compulsions to build a working relationship with the Centre (and as a corollary the Congress party) if she wants to implement some parts of her agenda. So she might not want to take a confrontational path with the coalition government in New Delhi except on some of popular grievances like petrol price hike.

As Sri Lanka Tamil issue is essentially a subject in the external affairs jurisdiction, she needs the cooperation of New Delhi if she wants influence India's Sri Lanka policy. So there is a strong possibility that she might scale down her rhetoric on Sri Lanka Tamil issue to enable New Delhi to take positive steps to meet her demands midway. In real terms India's Sri Lanka policy in the coming months may turn out to be less tilted in total support of Rajapaksa as in the past.

In this context, media reports emanating from Colombo on the proposed visit of an Indian delegation to meet the President probably on May 26 are interesting. According to them the high power Indian delegation visiting Sri Lanka would be insisting on Sri Lanka fully implementing the 13th amendment to the Constitution including those land and police powers to provincial councils to address Tamil grievances are of special interest.

What happens to the allegations of war crimes committed by Sri Lanka?

It may become a silent casualty as Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh do a delicate balancing act in maintaining a working relationship with both the Dravidian parties. At best, India would probably maintain its silence in public on the UN report, while urging President Rajapaksa in private, visible follow up action on the issues contained in the UN report as a trade off for its conditional support or neutral posture as and when the issue comes up in the UN forum.

Though this assessment may sound cynical, unfortunately foreign policy compromises are more often made with short term goals than laudable long term objectives. As Henry Kissinger said "No foreign policy -- no matter how ingenious -- has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none." This is so true of policy making in both the countries.

Colonel R Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as head of intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group.

Colonel R Hariharan (retd)