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The Rediff Special/B Raman

May 19, 2004

Part I: The new government and national security

Part II: The BJP understands the US better

The Congress (I)'s policy document titled Issues before the nation's security, defence and foreign policy is strongly critical of the outgoing BJP-led coalition's handling of India's relations with Pakistan and the US. But it contains hardly any criticism of its handling of relations with China, Russia, the ASEAN countries and the rest of the world.

One is also struck by the paucity of reference to India's relations with South Asian countries other than Pakistan, particularly Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.  

The absence of any criticism of the handling of relations with China, Russia, the ASEAN countries and the rest of the world could be interpreted as the Congress (I)'s unstated endorsement of the handling. 

The lack of highlighting of India's relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal could indicate that the Congress (I) is not yet clear about its approach to these countries.

These sensitivities arise from the controversy with Bangladesh over India's allegations of Dhaka's support to anti-Indian terrorist and insurgent groups; the Sri Lankan government's talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and their possible impact on India's efforts to get LTTE supremo Prabakaran extradited for trial in connection with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi; and the activities of the Maoists in Nepal and the tug of war between the king and the political parties agitating for the restoration of democracy.

The Congress apparently wants to reserve its judgment till it assumes office and has had an opportunity of studying the facts of the case relating to these three countries before deciding on its approach and publicly articulating it.

The support of the Leftists -- who constitute the third largest group in the Lok Sabha after the Congress (I) and BJP -- and the DMK is crucial for the new government's survival.

While the Leftists have had no strong views on foreign policy issues other than those relating to the US and Israel, the DMK's interest would be focused on the LTTE.


In the past, the DMK came in for strong criticism from the Congress (I) for its perceived sympathy for the LTTE. The DMK was a strong critic of Rajiv Gandhi's 1987 decision to dispatch the Indian Peace-Keeping Force to Sri Lanka. This opposition, which was shared by the BJP, forced the subsequent government led by V P Singh to withdraw the IPKF after it suffered a number of casualties in its unsuccessful operations against the LTTE..

DMK leader M Karunanidhi, then Tamil Nadu chief minister, carried his opposition to the IPKF to the extreme length of refusing to participate in a function at Chennai to welcome the return of the IPKF. He also opposed a subsequent proposal to construct a monument in Tamil Nadu in memory of Indian soldiers who had lost their lives in operations against the LTTE.

Under Congress pressure, the Chandra Shekhar government which held office for a brief while in 1990-1991 dismissed Karunanidhi's DMK government  in Tamil Nadu for allegedly failing to control the LTTE in the state.

After Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and the enquiry into it by the one-man Jain commission, the Congress (I) repeatedly demanded further enquiries into the DMK's suspected role as brought out by the Commission in its report, and had kept up pressure on the BJP-led government on this issue.  

But on the eve of the 2004 election, the Congress (I) did a surprising volte face and totally absolved the DMK of any responsibility or suspicion in connection with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Would the Congress (I)'s future dependence on the DMK for surviving in power have any impact on its policy towards Sri Lanka?

Like the BJP, the Congress (I) too has been a strong supporter of a peacefully-negotiated solution to the problems of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, which would meet the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils without affecting the territorial integrity of the country. There is unlikely to be any change in this respect.

While the BJP-led coalition made periodic proforma statements reiterating its continued interest in securing the extradition of Prabakaran, it did not seriously pursue the matter, apparently because of its keenness not to rock the boat vis-à-vis the peace negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

The BJP did not have political favourites in Sri Lanka and got along well with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of President Chandrika Kumaratunga as well as with the United National Party of then prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.

When Wickremasinghe was in power, the BJP-led government signalled support for his policies on the peace negotiations with the LTTE by strengthening bilateral trade with Sri Lanka and by responding positively to its requests for limited military assistance.  

At the same time, it refrained from taking any well-articulated public stand on issues such as the LTTE's demands for  for an Interim Self-Governing Authority in the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces, a de facto recognition of its navy and its right to patrol the seas off the coastal areas of the two provinces. It also stayed silent on the increasing role of external powers such as Norway, Japan, the US and the European Union in Sri Lanka, the contacts of all these nations, barring the US,  with the LTTE, and the frequent harassment of fishermen from Tamil Nadu straying into Sri Lankan waters by the Sri Lankan as well as the LTTE's navies.

The DMK, which was a strong ally of the BJP in the outgoing government till it broke away from it on the eve of the election and formed a tactical alliance with the Congress (I), had gone along with the BJP's policies in these matters without making them serious issues in inter-party relations.  

However, some strategic analysts in Tamil Nadu were critical of what they perceived as the BJP's disinterest in the national security implications of developments in Sri Lanka, particularly the LTTE's efforts to get de facto recognition of its navy and the increasing role of the US and Japan there, and its failure to ensure the protection of fishermen from Tamil Nadu. At the same time, they were appreciative of the BJP's action in obtaining from the Wickremasinghe government the lease of petrol storage tanks in Trincomalee and securing for the Indian Oil Corporation retail distribution rights in Sri Lanka.  

The Congress (I) and its allies have avoided taking a well-considered public stand on any of these issues. Traditionally, the Congress (I) has had closer relations with the SLFP than with the UNP. Now that the UNP-led coalition in Sri Lanka has been replaced by an SLFP-led one, this should facilitate a good equation between the leaderships of the two countries.  

In the past, the Congress (I) had been extremely suspicious of the US role in Sri Lanka, a suspicion which was and is shared by the Leftists, who are now electoral allies. It was the perceived insensitivity of the UNP-led government in power in Colombo in the 1980s to India's security concerns, particularly the US interest in the petrol storage tanks of Tricomalee and in securing for the Voice of America an expanded presence in Sri Lanka that led to the Indira Gandhi government's decision in 1983 to play a more active role in supporting the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils. It is unlikely that these suspicions have disappeared.

Many questions relating to Sri Lanka are likely to remain unanswered till the new government in New Delhi settles down. These are: Would the Congress (I) succumb to pressure from the DMK to scrap the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a special legislation which is in keeping with the provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution 1373 on the war against terrorism?

The BJP's refusal to accept this demand was one of the factors which contributed to a parting of the ways between it and the DMK and the latter's gravitating towards the Congress (I) and Sonia Gandhi.

If it concedes this demand, what impact it would have on the activities of the LTTE's sympathisers in Tamil Nadu?

In view of its dependence on the DMK, would it be as relentless as it was in the past in its efforts to have Prabakaran brought to trial in India?

If not, would it do business with an interim self-government in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, of which Prabakaran, the absconding mastermind of Rajiv Gandhi's murder, may emerge as the head? In its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority, the LTTE has indicated that all future negotiations relating to the economic and other interests of the Northern and Eastern Provinces have to be with the government of that authority. This would imply that if such an interim government headed by Prabakaran emerges, future negotiations on the renewal of the lease of the petrol storage tanks have to be with that Government. Will this be acceptable to New Delhi? 

What would be the role of India in the peace process -- a passive observer as under the BJP-led coalition, or an active player? Would India accept the growing US role in Sri Lanka instead of opposing or countering it?  

None of these questions figured in the policy documents of the Congress (I) or in its statements during the election campaign. It has preferred to maintain a discreet silence instead of articulating its position in public or even criticising any of the policies followed by the BJP-led coalition. Even the BJP preferred to maintain deliberate ambiguity on many of the questions posed above.  


The government of Begum Khaleda Zia had no reason to be happy with the BJP-led government because of its oft-repeated accusations of Bangladeshi support to anti-Indian insurgent and terrorist organisations, which were vigorously denied by it, and the talk of the BJP of its plans for the inter-linking of the Indian rivers which, the Bangladesh government claimed, would reduce the flow of waters in its river system.

Her government also remained reluctant to accept the proposals of UNOCAL, the US energy major, for the export of gas to India. Unless this was agreed to, the exploitation of the gas reserves of that country would not be profitable to UNOCAL or any other foreign company. The Khaleda Zia government prefers to deny to itself the benefits of the exploitation of these gas reserves rather than sell gas to India in view of public opposition to it.

Another matter of concern to India is the increased US activism in Bangladesh. The US role could increase in the country should Dhaka agree to send Bangladeshi troops to Iraq under a UN mandate after June 30 this year. This would bring the country closer to the US, and it could one day be declared another Major Non-NATO Ally in South Asia. The BJP-led government showed no outward signs of concern over the US role in that country.  

As in Sri Lanka, the BJP had no political favourites in Bangladesh. Its relations with the ruling Bangladesh National Party as well as the Opposition Awami League headed by Hasina Wajed were devoid of warmth. Traditionally, the Congress (I) had been closer to Hasina than to the present ruling party. What impact would this have on India's relations with Bangladesh?  

Just as the Congress (I) would have to be sensitive to the concerns and interests of the DMK while dealing with Sri Lanka, it would have to consider the concerns of West Bengal's Left Front government while dealing with Bangladesh. 

The West Bengal government is as concerned as the Government of India over the activities of Bangladesh-based insurgent and terrorist groups, since some of them pose a threat to the state's internal security. It is thus expected that the new government in New Delhi would keep up the pressure on Dhaka on this issue, though probably more discretely than the abrasive manner of the earlier government. 

However,  if there is a deterioration in the internal security situation in India's North-East as a result of the activities of the insurgents and terrorists operating from Bangladesh territory, New Delhi might find it difficult to resist the urge to act more robustly to deal with this menace.  

The BJP's proposals for the inter-linking of the river waters of India were of vital interest to the southern Indian states,  particularly Tamil Nadu, with its chronic water shortage, for drinking as well as agricultural purposes. The DMK is expected to  keep up the pressure on New Delhi to implement these proposals, which could add to tensions in the relations with Dhaka.  

Another matter of great concern to India has been the increasingly close relations between the government of Khaleda Zia and the regime of President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Unless there is a qualitative improvement in India's relations with Bangladesh and a consequent lessening of tension, this is a process which is likely to continue without India being able to do much about it. The BJP-led government watched it helplessly. The Congress (I)-led government may be able to do no better.  


The continuing Maoist activities in Nepal and their linkages with their counterparts in India, the role of the US in assisting Nepal in its counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, the overthrow of democracy by the king and the worsening confrontation between him and the political parties over this impact Indo-Nepal relations.

The BJP-led government appeared to have no strategy for India's relations with Nepal, just as it appeared to have no strategy for dealing with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Adhocism and inactivism over the increasing US role in the region characterised its policies.   

Was this inactivism vis-a-vis the US role in this region due to its keenness not to do anything which might cause difficulties in the developing bilateral relations with the US? Was it the outcome of an intelligent calculation to use the US to deal with the internal security problems of these countries, which might ultimately redound to the benefit of India? Or was it just policy lethargy?

It is difficult to answer these questions.   

The king of Nepal is close to the Sankaracharya of Kanchi and many other spiritual leaders of India who are close to the so-called Hindutva front organisations of the BJP. He also has many personal friends and well-wishers in the Hindutva organisations. But the BJP's relations with the political parties of Nepal lacked warmth. This apparently came in the way of the BJP-led government voicing strong opposition to the king's suppression of democracy.

The Congress (I) is till now not known to have much love for the king. Traditionally, it has maintained close relations with Nepal's political parties. It is thus likely to align more energetically than the BJP did with the political parties in their confrontation with the king, who should be a worried man.

Washington, which has serious doubts over the the hotch-potch of political parties of Nepal being able to tackle the Maoist insurgency, seems content to deal with the king.   

The previous Congress(I) governments of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi found it difficult to resist the urge to play an activist role in Nepal. The Congress (I) government of Narasimha Rao (1991-96) and the subsequent non-Congress (I) governments had tried to follow a non-interventionist policy.

But unlike the earlier Congress governments, the incoming one would be weak and dependent on the support of a confusing medley of parties for its survival in power and effectiveness in managing India's external relations and national security. It is doubtful whether they would encourage a resurgence of its past interventionist reflexes unless such interventionism or activism is aimed at countering the US role in these countries.   

The 'see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil' policy with regard to the increased US activism in this region was one of the factors which made the Congress (I) dub the BJP as subservient to the US, instead of an equal strategic partner. After having leveled this charge, can the Congress (I) afford to follow a similar policy on this subject? This is a question which would haunt it after it assumes office.

A small extract relating to South Asia, other than Pakistan, from the Congress document is appended below. 

Extract from the Congress (I) report on relations with South Asian nations other than Pakistan

'The Congress will allocate the highest priority to nurturing and expanding relations between India and its approximate neighbours in all respects. The Congress will strengthen and expand the activities of SAARC to make it an effective regional organization, serving the objectives of peace, stability and well being of the peoples of the South Asian Region. It will work toward the establishment of a South Asian Parliament. It will take up major regional projects in water management, energy and other vital areas.'

Part III: Congress needs a China hand

Image: Uday Kuckian

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