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This is my Nation


  Pranab Mukherjee’s visit will be just that: A visit 

It is quite possible that New Delhi has no real intention of carrying this ‘mandate’ from Tamil Nadu to completion and that it is merely playing to the gallery of Tamil Nadu politicians led by the octogenarian, but crafty Karunanidhi. That way, Karunanidhi saves face in his own electorate and New Delhi ensures his continued support for the coalition led by the Congress (I) party.
But, where would that leave Sri Lanka? Given the President’s consistent advocacy of ‘war for terrorism, political solution for the minorities’ stance, he could hardly be seen to be succumbing to Indian pressure. Besides, his government is packed with elements from both the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP), who could ill-afford to publicly endorse a suspension of military activities at this juncture

The government may have been busy last week trumpeting the military victories in the northern battlefront, but whatever the successes on the ground, a tough diplomatic tug-o-war also awaits in the form of renewed pressure from New Delhi.

This is because of the somewhat surprise announcement late this week that Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee will visit Colombo shortly. The aim of the visit, as described by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvelu Karunanidhi, is to ‘persuade Colombo to go for peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after announcing a ceasefire.’

This declaration by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister follows his visit to New Delhi where he led a delegation of Tamil Nadu politicians, meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, king-maker in the ruling Congress(I) led coalition. Significantly, several opposition parties in Tamil Nadu did not join Karunanidhi in this visit.

Ever since military operations began in the north, Colombo’s relations with New Delhi have been tenuous. It was at a low at the recently concluded eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) Summit in Colombo, but since then the dialogue had improved.

The entire issue is no doubt a political game for Chief Minister Karunanidhi, who wants to ensure the survival of his party in the South Indian state of 66 million people; but because he is part of the ruling coalition in the central government, his stance cannot be ignored.

As the military thrust intensified in the north of Sri Lanka, so did the cry from Tamil Nadu for direct Indian intervention. What the politicians in Tamil Nadu would like is to be cast in the role of saviours of their community, so they could ensure their own re-election, and for that the conflict in Sri Lanka is a heaven sent opportunity.

As the demand for Indian intervention grew, Colombo dispatched Parliamentarian and Presidential Advisor and sibling Basil Rajapaksa to meet with the Indian powers that be. Rajapaksa (Jnr.) was quite successful in his visit – India refrained from calling for direct intervention in Sri Lanka and was quite content with sending food aid to the displaced civilians in the north.

In the meantime in Colombo, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was reiterating his stand on the ethnic issue: He was ready for peace talks with the LTTE, but only on the pre-condition that the Tigers renounce their claim for a separate state and lay down arms. The bottom-line from the Rajapaksa administration was quite clear and consistent – there would be no let up in the military onslaught against the terrorists.

India’s response to this has been to repeat ad-nauseum its mantra that it firmly believes only a political solution would suffice in Sri Lanka. Colombo’s rejoinder to this assertion is that while the grievances of the minorities – and the Tamil community in particular –would be addressed through political means, terrorism has only one answer and that is to crush it with force, if necessary.

It appeared that this was an amicable status quo the two nations had arrived at after months of diplomatic squabbling. The arrival of food aid in Sri Lanka and its distribution was expected to cement this understanding.

We commented in these columns last week on the impact of the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. It was an event that was arguably second only to the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the attention of the entire world was focused on Mumbai and New Delhi’s response to the terror strikes.

The expectation in Colombo was that if anything, New Delhi could now no longer seen to be going soft on terrorism, of whatever hue. And indeed, the LTTE was still listed as a terrorist organisation and proscribed in India.

This is why New Delhi’s apparent capitulation to Tamil Nadu’s demands are surprising, to say the least. There is no confirmation from New Delhi at the time of writing as to when External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee will visit Colombo and what his brief will be, but even to suggest that Mukherjee will be trying to ‘persuade’ Colombo to commence a dialogue with the Tigers after announcing a ceasefire would have been dismissed as fantasy a week ago.

It is quite possible that New Delhi has no real intention of carrying this ‘mandate’ from Tamil Nadu to completion and that it is merely playing to the gallery of Tamil Nadu politicians led by the octogenarian, but crafty Karunanidhi. That way, Karunanidhi saves face in his own electorate and New Delhi ensures his continued support for the coalition led by the Congress (I) party.

But where would that leave Sri Lanka? Given the President’s consistent advocacy of ‘war for terrorism, political solution for the minorities’ stance, he could hardly be seen to be succumbing to Indian pressure. Besides, his government is packed with elements from both the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP), who could ill-afford to publicly endorse a suspension of military activities at this juncture.

Add to that the fact that the ongoing military operations are President Rajapaksa’s most convincing popularity factor and the result is a foregone conclusion: Colombo cannot suspend or mitigate the war effort in any way.

That is why any planned visit by Minister Mukherjee will be just that: A visit, no less, no more. If that appeases Tamil Nadu and Chief Minister Karunanidhi, so be it. If not, there is little that New Delhi can do to arm-twist Colombo into signing a ceasefire now and those walking the corridors of power in New Delhi must surely be aware of that.

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