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Wood for the trees
Mahinda Rajapakse has been riding the crest of a war victory for three years now, since his government wiped out the LTTE in a bloody denouement. It was a difficult moment for India, as the country headed into general elections. Political parties in Tamil Nadu were angry. The UPA government was equally so. Whether in deference to elections in Tamil Nadu or not, there was even a lull in the fighting in northern Sri Lanka.
Every Sri Lankan leader understands that the same big power, India, that can send troops into Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives in displays of hard power, is also weak enough to cave in to the political compulsions of domestic politics, particularly in Tamil Nadu. That's what happened this week when Manmohan Singh's government, terrified at the prospect of another fast by an octogenarian, or a DMK withdrawal from the cabinet, or both, voted against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. Sri Lankans are hurt. Yet India and Sri Lanka are close enough to overcome this. India remains that nation's largest investor, trade partner and source of tourism. Sri Lanka is very important for India's security and strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. I don't think India's going to lose influence in Sri Lanka overnight. We are too deeply invested for that. I also don't think China will come marching into Sri Lanka as a result of this vote. They may have been building stakes there for a while, with massive strategic infrastructure projects, but are unlikely to supplant India. Sri Lanka may now think twice before counting on India's support though. That's not a good thing.
But there are larger questions that we, as a growing power need to think about. There are always domestic constraints on foreign policy, but our political system needs to find the levers to be able to negotiate foreign policy that affects our vital national interest.
This week, India mortgaged its influence in Sri Lanka to a weak global organisation like the UN. Certainly, a resolution slamming Sri Lanka on human rights that is co-sponsored by Somalia has to have huge credibility, right? It would have been much better if India had put considerable pressure on Sri Lanka bilaterally to get the Rajapakse government to move towards meaningful political devolution. By itself, India has ways to get Colombo to see reason. Through the UN, this gets diluted to the point of being counter-productive. If anybody thinks that a 'shaming' UN resolution will get the Lankans moving, think again. Now they are more vulnerable to criticism of acting under 'pressure'. We're fairly familiar with this syndrome in India.
So should India's Sri Lanka policy only be seen though a Tamil prism? We don't send the foreign secretary or NSA to complain to Islamabad every time Gujarati fishermen are harassed by Pakistan. But a massive outcry erupts from TN, as if our sovereignty is threatened, whenever fishermen are victimised by Sri Lanka. We're also afraid to say that many of these fishermen are often out of line themselves. On the Lankan side, those affected by aggressive Indian fishing are also mostly Tamils. India needs to mull these issues as we look to outgrow being a small power. Frankly, in its actions, India is remarkably even-handed with some of its biggest projects and investments in southern Sri Lanka. It's just that the Sri Lanka discourse is mainly a Tamil one. We could look to nuance that.
Who are the biggest gainers out of this week's UNHRC vote? First on my list would be the eager-for-revenge Tamil diaspora, many of who miss the old regime in Jaffna. Second would be the Chinese. Third would be a bunch of activist NGOs.
Having said that, Rajapakse's feet should be held to the fire to push him to implement political reforms. Visitors to Sri Lanka these days complain that the country is moving closer to the style of Myanmar's junta rather than Indian democracy. Its northern areas are even akin to a security state. Yet, like with the Myanmar junta, India should use everything it has to push Colombo to take political steps. What Rajapakse cannot see now, but what we should show to him, is that a few years down the line he could be looking at LTTE 2. 0.
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