Millennium Post

Between ‘known devil’ and deep sea

The January 8 Sri Lankan presidential elections could perhaps be one of the most keenly fought elections in the past two decades in the island country.  Tamil Nadu is particularly watching the polls closely as the results could have an impact on the future of their Tamil brethren in Sri Lanka.  No country has a greater stake than India in ending the Sri Lankan Tamil problems because of the echo reaching in Tamil Nadu.

India has indeed been the most important external actor for many decades in the Sri Lankan ethnic issue because of its geo-strategic interests and internal political factors apart from its desire to find a permanent settlement to the ethnic conflict across the Palk Straits.  However, despite converging strategic and economic and trade interests and appeals by Tamil Nadu-based political parties, New Delhi cannot apply too much pressure on Colombo on the issue.

Although Sri Lankan watchers predict that the results may be very close, there is not much to choose for the Sri Lankan Tamils as both President Rajapaksa and his main opponent Srisena, backed by nearly 40 political parties and groups, did not make any big election promises to raise their hope. Unfortunately, many of the issues most important to Tamils are not on the agenda of either Rajapaksa or the combined opposition.  While Rajapaksa has pleaded for “ choosing the known devil” Srisena has also promised cleaning up corruption and full implementation of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations as suggested by the UN Human Rights Commission besides repealing the 18th Amendment.

The Tamils resent the de facto military rule over the northern province, and the continued impunity for human rights abuses and alleged war crimes during the civil war. Rajapaksa has refused to honour agreements with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), broken promises to India and the other world leaders and not implemented constitutional provisions for minimal devolution of power to Tamil-speaking areas of the north and east. There is trust deficit between him and the Tamil community as they have lost hope.

As for Srisena, he has made it clear that he would not be soft on Tamil hardliners, would not withdraw the military from the northern region and would not agree to a division of the country or allow the LTTE to regroup.

He was acting as defence minister in the final fortnight of the war.  Yet the TNA has announced support to him instead of Rajapaksa. They think that under him it is at least possible for some genuine national reconciliation and rehabilitation. Domestically, Srisena’s principal challenge will be to create conditions towards reconciliation with Tamils, bridge the trust deficit, ensure the rights of Muslims and evangelical Christians and to address the deep concerns over corruption and concentration of power. Given the voting patterns, Rajapaksa can win without Tamil votes, but Srisena cannot. Therefore, he should be more concerned about Tamil votes while many believe that the space to address their grievances will only open up once the Rajapaksas leaves.

Should Rajapaksa win the polls, he will create a record but has many challenges in the post poll scenario. He has to find ways and means to satisfy the international community on the devolution of powers, war crime investigations, reconciliation and reconstruction in the northern province.

He will also have to work hard to build his image at the international level. Going by the reports, he might win with a thin majority while he expected a landslide victory when he announced the elections.

So what is the stand of New Delhi, which is keeping a close watch on the elections? The Modi government is getting ready for the post poll scenario in Sir Lanka. The official view that it will deal with whoever comes to power as it has been doing all along. Did not New Delhi even deal with Gen Musharraf when he took over as military dictator? The BJP has already sent party delegations led by Dr Subramaniam Swamy in these past seven months.

Modi’s chemistry with Rajapaksa has been good. His gesture to release the five Tamil Nadu
fishermen sentenced to death by the Sri Lankan courts is seen as a friendly gesture. So this neutral approach is considered good because even though Rajapaksa had not implemented the 13th amendment he had al least allowed the Wigneswaran government in the northern province to function though under substantial constraints.  He has also agreed to moderate his China card.

As for Tamil Nadu parties, they are united in opposing Rajapaksa. The AIADMK chief Jayalaithaa is busy fighting her court cases while the DMK too is involved in its party elections and family feuds. The other political parties are keenly watching the scenario.

When the Hindi movie star Salman Khan went to Colombo to campaign for Rajapakase the Tamil Nadu parties condemned it. They are in a peculiar situation as Wigneswaran during his visit to Chennai last month had made it clear that they would do better without the interference of the Tamil Nadu parties.

New Delhi should keep a watch for the post poll scenario, as stability in the neighborhood is very important.  It could be more of the same or there could be a whole new ball game for which Delhi should be prepared.IPA

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