Friday 15 November 2013

Manmohan loses leverage in Lanka (Pakistan Observer)

MD Nalapat
Friday, November 15, 2013 - A statesperson is distinguished from a politician by the manner in which the overall national interest is protected rather than sectional demands that when conceded have the impact of harming the overall interest. By staying away from the Colombo meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has severely harmed the interests of the country whose interests he is presumed to protect.

Sri Lanka is crucial to the evolving Indian Ocean strategy of India, which envisages a coming together on trade and security issues of the littoral countries. Unless Colombo becomes an enthusiastic partner in such a strategy, it will not be difficult for those powers seeking to limit India’s influence in the Indian Ocean Rim from using the unique location of Sri Lanka as the ideal platform for diluting Delhi’s reach. For both India and Sri Lanka, it makes sense for a coordinated strategy to be evolved and implemented. However, for this to happen, domestic public opinion in both countries needs to be on board. In the case of India, with the exception of a few strands of opinion in the state of Tamil Nadu, there is overwhelming goodwill for Sri Lanka. The people of that country are seen as ethnic cousins who are themselves outgoing and friendly. Buddhism is the preferred religion within the majority Sinhala community in Sri Lanka and India is the country where Prince Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, was born. There is therefore a special resonance in visits to India, especially to locations that evoke memories of the period when Emperor Ashoka ensured pride of place to Lord Buddha’s teachings within the vast expanses of territory that he controlled.

In India, there has been a sychophantic race by politicians within the Congress Party to name as many items as possible in honour of the Nehru family. Although much attention, including by the higher judiciary in India, has been paid to the statues of Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram and his acolyte Mayawati, the fact is that the number of such statues is minuscle when compared to the thousands of statues of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi that dot the country. Flying from Indira Gandhi airport in Delhi to Mumbai and crossing the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link to the city before taking a flight to Rajiv Gandhi airport in Hyderabad to visit a Jawaharlal Nehru scheme, visitors may be forgiven for believing that the Nehrus are to India what the Al Sauds are to Saudi Arabia, ever-present and all-powerful. Had some element of geopolitical calculation been present in the naming of airports, the Indira Gandhi airport at Delhi would have been renamed the Emperor Ashoka International Airport, so as to kindle the memory of a great prince. The association of Emperor Ashoka with Buddhism would also have served as a whiff of “soft power” reaching out to the Buddhist-majority countries of the world, such as Japan, Thailand and of course Sri Lanka, besides enthusing Buddhists from countries across the globe, including in China, where Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion with hundreds of shrines and temples coming up each year to cater to the spiritual needs of millions.

Now that the LTTE has been defeated, the revulsion which that organisation evoked after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi twelve years ago has died down. People have forgotten that for the LTTE, the capture of northern and eastern Sri Lanka to set up a Tamil Eelam ( or homeland) was only Stage One of LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran’s dream. The devout Christian and loving husband and father who was nevertheless merciless with his foes ( ie anyone who did not unconditionally follow him). Stage Two would have been to use captured Sri Lankan territory to create an insurgency in India which over time would create Greater Eelam, comprising not only the north and east of Sri Lanka but the whole of Tamil Nadu state in India, as well as parts of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

An LTTE state would have been a security nightmare for India, which is why it was a surprise when in 2009 frantic efforts took place in Delhi to enforce a cease-fire between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE which would have saved the latter exactly the way Rajiv Gandhi saved Prabhakaran in 1987 by enforcing a cease-fire just when the Sri Lankan Army was about to destroy the LTTE. Those in Delhi and in Chennai who take the side of LTTE remnants in Sri Lanka forget that the reward Rajiv Gandhi got for his deliverance of Prabhakaran was to get killed less than five years later by those he had saved in 1987. Manmohan Singh sent a high-level team to Colombo in June 2009 to try and persuade President Mahinda Rajapaksa to stop the army offensive, but failed in the effort. Just as Prabhakaran killed Rajiv Gandhi and another South Asian leader who helped him, President Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka, he may have turned his guns on Manmohan Singh once he escaped the noose fashioned for him by Gotebaya Rajapaksa,the Defense Secretary of Sri Lanka and the architect of the successful war against Prabhakaran.

By choosing political expediency over national interest and canceling his attendance at the Colombo Commonwealth meeting, Prime Minister Singh has ensured that the biggest losers will be the Sri Lankan Tamils, who incidentally favoured the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to their country. The main reason why President Rajapaksa made concessions to the Tamil groups, such as the holding of fair elections, was to secure the goodwill of India. Now that he has been made aware that such goodwill is a chimera, at least so long as the present government is in office in Delhi, it is unlikely that he will further inflame hardline Sinhala opinion by giving more concessions. The Tamil Nadu parties which succeeded in keeping the PM from going to Colombo will soon begin to reap the bitter effects of the reduced influence of India. A drop caused by decision of Manmohan Singh to bypass the Commonwealth Summit in a country that is only a few minutes flying time from his own.

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