By Gautam Sen –
The Indian Parliamentary delegation led by Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, has just returned from a wide ranging tour of Sri Lanka. While there was a great deal of scepticism about the visit because of the lukewarm attitude and even hostility across-the-board from Tamil Nadu politicians trying to outplay each other on every political issue, the delegation seems to have got its message across, that effective engagement with the most influential platform of Tamil interests i.e. the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Sri Lanka, cannot be avoided by the Rajapakse Government. The delegation also managed to present a cohesive posture to the Sri Lankan authorities they interacted with. The delegation also made it a point to meet not only the Tamils of the northern province, but also a cross section of politicians and civil society leaders in the eastern province and the Tamils of the central highlands` plantations whose voice in the affairs of Sri Lanka has been the weakest.
The lukewarm attitude of the Tamil Nadu politicians prior to the delegation’s visit may to an extent be deemed logical considering that, on the ground, there has been no de facto progress despite many commitments by the Rajapakse Government for effective devolution of administrative and financial powers to the authorities at the local level in the realm of land rights and policing and also the instituting of local i.e. Tamil medium while transacting on state matters concerning education and culture. The absence of many prominent Indian politicians in the MPs` team was also a contributory factor for the lack of enthusiasm. However, it goes to the credit of Sushma Swaraj that she got the itinerary suitably worked out and the pressing issues from the Sri Lankan Tamils` stand point succinctly highlighted during the visit in juxtaposition to India’s fundamental interests, which are maintaining the unity of the Sri Lankan state with the Sri Lankan polity functioning in a politico-administrative framework allowing the fruition and development of different ethnic and linguistic cultures.
The Indian parliamentary delegation has fulfilled the objective of presenting an unified Indian approach on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue and related rehabilitation and reconstruction matters of that country’s internally displaced persons. Swaraj explicitly made the point before meeting President Rajapakse that both the ruling party and the Opposition in India were on the same side. However, only the future will tell whether another key objective of the delegation i.e. influencing the broad spectrum of political forces in Sri Lanka towards a comprehensive accommodation with their Tamil people, has been achieved or not.
The leader of the Indian delegation pointedly highlighted to the Sri Lankan Government the need to work on the devolution issues based on a national consensus. Swaraj spoke repeatedly on the theme throughout the delegation’s visit emphasising that the TNA, the credible representative of the Tamils of Sri Lanka’s northern province, and the main Opposition party, the United National Party headed by Ranil Wikramasinghe, must be persuaded to join the talks. She also invoked the Sri Lankan Constitutional process by advocating the urgency of the country’s Parliamentary Select Committee starting an active deliberation on the `13th Amendment Plus` issues, with the involvement of the entire Sri Lankan political spectrum.
To a dispassionate observer, there is a degree of unrealism in the political milieu prevailing in Sri Lanka today. President Mahinda Rajapakse and his dominant group in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party are in power owing to the overwhelming support they enjoy among the Sinhala lower middle class mainly based in the southern provinces and to an extent from the central region of the country. This sectarian popular support has only been consolidated after victory in the Fourth Eelam War. President Rajapakse cannot afford at this juncture to disown and undermine this power base of his. There is, therefore, no apparent urgency or motivation on the Sri Lankan President’s part to broad-base his power structure by effectively associating the TNA and Ranil Wickramasinghe and his UNP in the national dialogue on `13th Amendment Plus` issues, which involve more than devolution of powers. The President may also perceive no logic to politically prepare and enlighten his diehard Sinhala supporters on the need for political accommodation with their Tamil co-citizens.
Notwithstanding the above-narrated not-too-bright a scenario, the fact that the Indian Parliamentary delegation worked as an effective continuum of the Ministry of External Affairs, augurs well for India. Unlike in the Nehruvian era or even during the Indira Gandhi years, of late the bi-partisan approach on India’s foreign policy seems to be getting eroded. The manner in which Swaraj and the delegation she led went about interacting with people and authorities who matter in Sri Lanka, and clarified India’s policies and interests, was commendable. The timing of the visit was also significant. Moreover, the fallout of damaging comments and postures of many Tamil Nadu politicians on India-Sri Lanka relations also appear to have been negated.
India appears to be working on two parallel tracks with respect to Sri Lanka. The recent decision of the Government of India to vote in favour of the US-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) stressing on the urgency of instituting measures towards implementation of the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s own `Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission` and addressing consequent human rights` violations during operations against the LTTE, may be viewed as part of the effort to build up pressure on Colombo. While the Indian vote at the UNHRC was to an extent influenced by Tamil Nadu politics, the implications could not have been ignored by the Sri Lanka Government. At the same time, the Indian Parliamentary delegation’s visit was a concomitant measure to reinforce the Government of India’s commitment and concern for the unity of the Sri Lankan state as well as its belief that all regions of Sri Lanka must be developed equitably and institutional protection afforded to Tamil culture which has been historically part of the Sri Lankan nation and society.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses