Neighbours adrift

There is a perception that Sri Lanka hasn’t done all it can to help Tamil civilians pick up the pieces after two decades of civil war

It is a bit of a cliché that diplomatic outreach to India’s neighbouring countries lies through its states. There is reason for this. Economic integration of our subcontinent is unlikely to be a dramatic, top-down event. As things stand, there seems little chance of South Asian nations signing something like the Treaty of Maastricht, the 1991 agreement that created the European Union.

It is more probable that localised initiatives could be the bottom-up trigger. Take greater trade between the two Punjabs, commerce between West Bengal and Bangladesh or a river-waters compact that will benefit Nepal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Could these lead to something bigger?
To be fair, India has not arrived at this question due to some grand strategy or theoretical construct. Like so much else in the recent past, it has been an accidental implication of coalition politics and the rise of regional and state-specific parties. They can pursue or block foreign-policy proposals from New Delhi. As such, the Union government has grudgingly come to see it as useful to make them partners rather than bypass them.
Sri Lanka offers the other side of the picture. Historically, India has seen Sri Lanka almost solely through the prism of that country’s Tamil minority and the politics of Tamil Nadu. In the final months of the battle between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, the UPA government took a pragmatic decision. It refused to succumb to interest groups and provincial politicians and recognised Velupillai Prabhakaran’s elimination — rather than a ceasefire and a safe passage for the LTTE chief — was the only solution.
Today, that moment of enlightenment seems so far away. Small-scale bickering has returned. There is a perception in India that the Sri Lankan government hasn’t done all it can to help Tamil civilians pick up the pieces after two decades of civil war. Disturbing stories of internally-displaced people and their health and civic conditions have been recorded. Indian officials also say Colombo doesn’t seem as keen as it could be to develop infrastructure in the Tamil areas. For example, India has offered to help develop the Palaly airport in Jaffna from a military to a civilian facility but has been left disappointed.
The Sri Lankan contention has been that India, like Western countries, underestimates the degree of development work the Sri Lankan Army has been engaged in in the Tamil areas. Indeed, redeployment of troops for this purpose has been a practical solution, Sri Lankan sources say, because if thousands of able-bodied troops are suddenly demobilised it will pose a social challenge of quite another nature. Colombo also insists that “settlement” with a Tamil civilian leadership is not easy to achieve because no such credible leadership exists. The LTTE had wiped out its moderate opponents. Further, a caste conflict has complicated internal dynamics within the Tamil community.
Both sides have half a point. What hasn’t helped is the absence of chemistry between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Mahinda Rajapakse. The two are very different individuals. Mr Rajapakse is a provincial politician, distinct from the cosmopolitan elite of Colombo. He responds to international politics in quite the same manner as he looks at domestic politics. He also has a strongman streak, drawing from his electoral strength in a post-war Sri Lanka. For instance, he got Parliament to impeach the Supreme Court Chief Justice on rather flimsy grounds.
Sensing a policy paralysis and a weakness in the upper echelons of power in New Delhi, Mr Rajapakse has pushed his Indian interlocutors. He has flirted with the Chinese. Beijing has been only too willing to play along, providing cheap capital and loans that have paid for much of Sri Lanka’s reconstruction and boom. At the MEA, the absence of a strategic reappraisal of the bilateral relationship has led to confused responses. It has led some sections — and these include sections not even remotely sympathetic to the LTTE — to wonder if the effacement of the Tamil insurgency has left India without diplomatic leverage.
In terms of pure power equations this has happened. After the civil war, Sri Lanka has more options and more operational autonomy in its external relations. A segment of Sinhalese political opinion is relishing this liberation and is more than happy to stand up to Big Brother up north.
Take a specific case. While Chinese companies have built infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, the Sampur power project in Trincomalee, in which NTPC is partnering the Ceylon Electricity Board, has been delayed. The role of the Sri Lankan power minister was considered particularly obstructive by the Indians. His removal at the end of January is a signal that the paperwork for the project may finally
happen by March 31, 2013.
In transferring the minister, Mr Rajapakse has sent a message. In coming to India for a pilgrimage this week, travelling to Bodh Gaya as well as Tirupati, he has sent another message. While New Delhi has been silent, parties in Tamil Nadu, such as the DMK and the MDMK, have been on the streets, raising slogans against the Sri Lankan President. In all this, it is important to not lose sight of the broader picture. With the Indian Ocean emerging as an area of 21st century geopolitical competition, it would be short-sighted for India to look at Sri Lanka solely in the context of Tamil
There is no doubt that Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority needs to be guaranteed its political space, legal equality and cultural dignity. Aggressive ethnic nationalism, especially of the kind previous generations of Sinhalese politicians encouraged, has no place in today’s world. India is within its rights to argue and fight for that principle. Yet, that principle is only a parameter in India’s Sri Lanka outlook; it is not the be all and end all. In that sense, far from outsourcing Sri Lanka policy to Tamil Nadu politicians, New Delhi’s establishment would do well to recover some turf.

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