Sound, fury and some diplomacy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took out a rabbit from his hat when he invited the SAARC leaders for his swearing-in ceremony on Monday and took it forward by having a separate ‘get to know’ meeting with each of the leaders who had arrived in Delhi to witness the spectacular event. No doubt he got kudos for this coup, and has seized the initial advantage but it is too early to speculate on his foreign policy initiatives.
While Modi has been talking of economic issues and jobs during his campaign not much was known about his foreign policy thinking. The neighbouring counties were particularly watching closely what would be the new government’s foreign policy initiatives. Therefore Modi’s invitation has sent a positive signal to the neighbours.
While the media has made it a Pakistan focused event, the other countries are no less important, particularly Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. For instance the meeting, the first between Modi and the Sri Lankan President Rajapakse on Tuesday almost got no focus in the media except perhaps in Tamil Nadu. As for the other leaders it was much less. Modi-Rajapakse meeting was significant in the backdrop of the opposition from Tamil Nadu leaders including the NDA allies PMK, MDMK, DMDK, and the ruling AIADMK as well as the DMK. They were critical of the invitation to Rajapakse ignoring the sentiments of people of Tamil Nadu who are agitating about their Tamil brethren in the island country. They allege that Rajapakse should be tried for human rights violations and the genocide during the 2009 Eealam war. MDMK chief Vaiko and other Tamil Nadu parties even held black flag demonstrations near Jantar Mantar against the visit of the Sri Lankan President.
If the Tamil Nadu political parties expected that Modi would behave the same way his predecessor Manmohan Singh did on Indo – Sri Lanka relations they were disappointed. Singh, bowing to their pressure even cancelled his visit to Colombo for the Commonwealth meeting hosted by Sri Lanka last year. Modi, on his part seems to be sending a signal that he wants to have good relations with all the neighbors including Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh and went ahead ignoring their protests. In effect he sent a signal that the foreign policy is the domain of the centre and he will not be a hostage to the state leaders. This is pertinent when the state chief ministers like Jayalalithaa and Mamata want a say in the foreign policy.
This is indeed a new turn in the Tamil Nadu politics, which is always intertwined with the Sri Lankan Tamil issue for decades. In fact, Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi used the services of the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M G Ramachandran in dealing with the Tamil militant groups including the LTTE earlier. The DMK pushed for the withdrawal of the IPKF from the island country in 1989 when it was a partner in the National Front government led by V.P. Singh. Moreover for over three decades the Tamil issue has become a poll issue in the Assembly as well as Lok Sabha elections. 2014 elections were no different. The strange thing is that there are two types of Tamils in Sri Lanka – plantation Tamils who were brought by the British to work in their tea plantations and the Indian origin Tamils who had been in the country for centuries. The plantation Tamils are a shrinking group now as the new generation does not want to work in the plantations any more and are looking for jobs elsewhere.
Although elected with a huge mandate the Northern Province chief minister Wigneswaran complains he is not even able to get a chief secretary of his choice while president Rajapakse is still unwilling to give them the two important powers – police and land. The irony is that neither the plantation Tamils nor the Jaffna Tamils want the interference of the Tamil Nadu political parties because both groups feel that they are following their own political agenda and not that of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Wigneswaran has gone on record in this regard. The Mayor of Jaffna Yogeshwari who accompanied Rajapakse to the swearing in ceremony this week also articulated the same view. Had Wignseswaran accompanied Rajapakse accepting his invitation to join his delegation for the function, the Tamil Nadu parties might have red face but he refused on the ground he was not getting cooperation from the Sri Lankan president and his coming here would send a strong signal,
Modi made it clear to Rajapakse that he would like the Sri Lankan government to address the two key issues – rehabilitation and reconstruction of the Tamil population and implementation of the 13th amendment which had been agreed to by Rajapakse in 2010 during his meeting with Singh. Modi pitched for an early reconciliation process to meet the aspirations of Tamil community in Sri Lanka, which should send a positive signal for the Tamil Nadu leaders. This is indeed a welcome step.
There are a few other contentious issues like the Katchateevu and fishermen. Sri Lanka has often arrested the Tamil Nadu fishermen who stray into the Sri Lankan waters. The Tamil Nadu political parties are agitated about this. Modi and Rajapakse decided to address the matter through the mechanism of Joint Meetings between the Ministerial level representatives. This is a problem, which needs to be tackled on a long-term basis.
While the beginning has been good with the first meeting, the effect will be visible in the coming months whether Rajapakse will move forward. He has become stronger with his pro – Sinhala sentiments and he would have to move cautiously if he wants to keep this constituency intact. IPA