India looking for alternatives

By J. S. Tissainayagam

It has been drilled into the ears of the public that the party best equipped to root out ‘LTTE terrorism’ is the PA. The PA was out-manoeuvred by the Tigers on the battlefield and left with a lot of egg on its face as the rebels stole a march over it on beginning negotiations through Norwegian mediation. But that has not deterred the PA from persisting in portraying itself as the party that has the best credentials to snuff out ‘terrorism’ - a buzzword that has gained new international opprobrium after the September 11 bombing of the WTC.

The PA has also tried to show in its election campaign that its policies are in consonance with international trends and the process of suppressing terrorism is acknowledged not only by the United States and the west, but also India. India’s stance against forces destabilising the Indian state whether it be Veerappan in Karanataka, the LTTE and its agents, or what it calls cross-border terrorism in Kashmir is well known.

While saying that it will continue to act as the champion against the LTTE, the PA has also gone out on a limb to tell Sri Lankans that the UNP is the only southern (Sinhala majority) party that is prepared to negotiate with the Tigers and thereby condone ‘terrorism.’ Spurious as the logic might be, this is what it would want the voters to believe.

In representing itself as the only party in Sri Lanka ideologically committed to overcoming terrorism, the PA has tried to say that by extension it is acting in the interests of India (and the western nations).

A degree of consonance in foreign policy between the SLFP, which forms the core of the PA, and the Congress party of India, has permitted the PA to disseminate the myth of being the only party having policies that are traditionally sympathetic to those of India’s.

The SLFP-PA propaganda makes it out that in the 1950s S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Jawaharlal Nehru were united in their vision in de-colonisation and on promoting the Afro-Asian solidarity and non-alignment. This continued even in the 1970s between Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi, despite glitches such as the Sri Lankan role in the Indo-Pak war of 1971 that led to the formation of Bangladesh, which was open to interpretation as being in support of Pakistan.

In opposition to this, Indo-Lanka relations have not been the best when the UNP was in power in Colombo. The Senanayakes were openly pro-western, both in the economic and security linkages they promoted. It was a contrast to India’s own orientation in economic management, and to a greater degree in security matters, as they were closer to the Soviet Union.

In India’s eyes, there were two transgressions committed by the post-1977 UNP. One was to liberalise the economy and prefer trade and investment from the west and the Far East than with India. The other was J. R. Jayewardene’s strategy to bring in American and Israeli military interests to back his government’s efforts to crush armed Tamil militancy, rather than relying on India. India retaliated by arming and training Tamil militants to destabilise the Sri Lankan state.

India regained its handle over Sri Lanka with the Indo-Lanka accord. Though President R. Premadasa tried to reassert Sri Lankan ‘independence’ by demanding the withdrawal of the IPKF and condoning the anti-Indian hysteria among the masses, Sri Lanka was not in a position to go against India’s Sri Lanka policy.

This rather lengthy survey of the past is important to see how easy it was for President Chandrika Kumaratunga to perpetuate the myth that Indo-Lanka ties are more cordial under the SLFP-PA than under the UNP, when her government came to power in 1994.

By 1994, the biggest issue in Indo-Lanka relations was the LTTE. The Indian state had to absorb the negative fallout from the forced withdrawal of the IPKF, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the possibility of the LTTE’s military campaign for Eelam, stoking the fires of separatism in India.

India, then under Congress (I), gave full backing to the PA government short of direct military intervention, to crush the LTTE. Though there might have been sections of the Indian government, or the state government in Tamil Nadu sympathetic to the Tigers, there has been no flagging in the overall policy of New Delhi to destroy the Tigers ever since. Its proscription of the LTTE, surveillance of the Palk Straits, military assistance and economic aid (after the Paris Development Forum refused to pledge further aid in December 2000) are all eloquent pointers to this.

Despite all this, it became evident that Sri Lanka was not doing its allotted task. The LTTE’s continuing military successes were military debacles for the government. What is more, Sri Lanka did not cease to flirt with the west on military matters, and continuing human rights violations and governance issues only exacerbated ethnic relations and fuelled Tamil militancy.

The actual level of Indo-Lanka relations was delineated in May-June 2000 when the LTTE threatened Palaly military base. The desperate PA asked for assistance from New Delhi. All India promised was logistical aid that might have included troop evacuation and aid in military hardware, but nothing more.

While India’s hopes of militarily crushing the LTTE receded with Elephant Pass and was confirmed by Agni Kheela, the fact that it was not even in position to begin political negotiations with the Tigers became evident when the Norwegian brokered effort came a cropper in April this year.

All this had become a nightmare for the country wanting to be a regional policeman: chronic instability through sheer ineptitude displayed by the PA. There was no other option for India but to turn to the UNP.

Credit has been given to the UNP on how well it has handled its relations with India. Gone is the anti-Indian rhetoric of the Premadasa era. Ranil Wickremesinghe has understood New Delhi’s compulsions and acted with maturity. So much so that the PA’s propaganda as being the most Indophile party is eroding.

Wickremesinghe has been in touch with New Delhi in the past few years and has been alive to Indian interests and recognises that the Tamil question can be resolved to the satisfaction of all only if Indian interests are satisfied. This is despite Kumaratunga stating that measures such as the interim council in the northeast proposed by the UNP in its manifesto are pro-LTTE and seeks to divide the country.

The best example of how highly New Delhi holds Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP is seen by the considerable diplomatic gesture made by the Vajpayee government in September, when Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi even while a no confidence motion against the PA was about to be tabled.

The most important factor that governs India’s regional policy is to have a stable South Asia. The more unstable it is, the more tempting an offer would it be extra-regional forces to use it for their own designs. As the northern rim of South Asia becomes the theatre of what could become a protracted military conflict, the importance of stability in other parts of the region become proportionately more important.

The PA’s hollowness is there for all to see. It cannot fight, nor can it talk. It is therefore natural for forces pushing for stability in the region to look to alternatives, which they hope will deliver the goods. And that is why the UNP, despite all the attempts by the PA to paint it as treacherous and insidious to Sinhala interests, appears to be acceptable to New Delhi.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader [28 April 2002]