|Ministers Siripala & Swaraj
”Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has been in politics long enough to know that after 1983, the internal and the external in Sri Lanka have become inextricable. If anyone is interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, it is because the Sri Lankan government has externalized its internal affairs. It will not be nice for India to say it, but any Sri Lankan politician with a head on his shoulders must know that India does not need Sri Lanka’s co-operation on anything but it is Sri Lanka who needs India’s co-operation to address its own internal as well as external affairs.”
The choice for the Sri Lankan government is to either co-operate with India on 13A to mitigate the West’s insistence on war crimes investigation, or alienate India and further aggravate the island’s internal and external circumstances.
If there was disappointment in Sri Lankan Tamil political circles after Narendra Modi’s majority victory in the Lok Sabha elections, there must have been disappointment in government circles after Modi’s swearing in and his brief meeting with President Rajapaksa, when Prime Minister Modi reset the Indo-Lanka clock back to 13A. However, after returning to Colombo, President Rajapaksa seems to have directed senior (SLFP) Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva to let it be known that only the proverbial Parliamentary Select Committee could decide on the future of the Thirteenth Amendment. While the new Indian Prime Minister suggested to President Rajapaksa that an early and full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment and even going beyond it will facilitate the national reconciliation process, Minister de Silva has reminded the media in Colombo that “the government would co-operate always with India, but no one should interfere in the internal affairs of the country.” Why did not the President himself straighten Prime Minister Modi on the matter while the latter is still new to the file on Sri Lanka?
Rather than having his Minister offer a history lesson in Colombo, President Rajapaksa could have told the new BJP Prime Minister that the Thirteenth Amendment was forced on a weak Sri Lankan President (J.R. Jayewardene, a mostly secular urban elite) by the wretched Congress Party of India, and that it is now up to the two of them, as Asia’s new strongmen doers (I am paraphrasing Basil Rajapaksa’s comparative exhilaration), to throw 13A into the same dustbin where the Congress has been dumped, and rewrite a new relationship between Modi’s India and Mahinda’s Lanka. The same way, the Chinese are expecting Modi to rewrite Sino-Indian relationship now that the moribund Congress is finally out of the way. While at it, they could also put Tamil Nadu in its place and in its corner. Why not?
Here is why. President Rajapksa’s style of governing is saying different things to different people, and letting his Ministers say even more different things to even more different people. May be the ministerial musings in Colombo were intended not for Indian ears but the UPFA government’s small sidekicks like the NFF, the JHU, and now even the MEP, who are getting hot under the collar and are hollering out multi-point demands directly at the self-beleaguered President. Modi could ignore Tamil Nadu’s misplaced protests and invite Rajapaksa to Delhi for a new beginning, but President Rajapaksa is too ensnared in his own little alliances to tell them minions where to buzz off – i.e., political wilderness without SLFP support. If the Modi mantra is maximum governance with minimum government, the Rajapaksa style is minimum governance with maximum government plus, plus.
Prime Minister Modi’s resetting the clock to 13A sends a message not only to the Rajapaksa government, but also to those in Tamil politics who cannot give up on their matinee dreaming and have been investing their dreams on a Tamil Nadu government contesting just 39 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats in India to somehow roughhew the Sri Lankan political landscape. They too can wake up from their matinee madness and smell the evening tea, just as the Sri Lankan government must realize that it cannot engage Delhi without talking 13A. Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has been in politics long enough to know that after 1983, the internal and the external in Sri Lanka have become inextricable. If anyone is interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, it is because the Sri Lankan government has externalized its internal affairs. It will not be nice for India to say it, but any Sri Lankan politician with a head on his shoulders must know that India does not need Sri Lanka’s co-operation on anything but it is Sri Lanka who needs India’s co-operation to address its own internal as well as external affairs. The choice for the Sri Lankan government is to either co-operate with India on 13A to mitigate the West’s insistence on war crimes investigation, or alienate India and further aggravate the island’s internal and external circumstances.
Same 13A policy but different players
Modi’s resetting the clock indicates continuity in policy but discontinuity in method. Contrary to any fanciful notion that Sri Lankan government circles may have entertained that the new BJP Prime Minister would dump 13A as unwanted Congress legacy, Mr. Modi has affirmed that his new government will stand by India’s current policy on Sri Lanka as defined by the Thirteenth Amendment. What will change is the method of operationalizing it. In contrast to Manmohan Singh’s hands-off, laid back, disengaged and not-following-through approach, Modi’s mode of governance will be hands-on, focused, fully engaged and full of follow-throughs. Sri Lanka is not going to be a daily priority for the Indian Prime Minister, but it will not be relegated to the back burner with the fire put off. The priority would be set by India’s new Foreign Minister, the diminutive Sushma Swaraj with impressive political and experiential credentials. She is also quite familiar with the Sri Lankan file having led an all-party parliamentary delegation to the island in April 2012, when she was BJP’s Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
Mrs. Swaraj is one of the high profile stalwarts in the Modi cabinet, a number of whom including Modi, Swaraj, Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh, and Finance and Defense Minister Arun Jaitley, cut their political teeth in their mid-twenties in the protest movement against Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency Rule. Like many others in the new government, Mrs. Swaraj has her own RSS roots, growing up as the daughter of an RSS member. She has been a Supreme Court Advocate and she is married to one. Her political trace has quite a few first-woman milestones – Chief Minister of Haryana, Chief Minister of Delhi, Minister in former BJP governments, and Leader of the Opposition in the last parliament. Any South Asian leftist or progressive will cringe at lauding someone with RSS roots, and I do. But objectively, one has to concede that Modi and his band of RSS cadres have arrived at the pinnacle of India’s national politics motivated and determined to prove that they can do better than the grand old Congress Party. The Rajapaksa government should beware that part of that motivation and determination will rub off on Delhi’s dealings with Colombo. In Sushma Swaraj, G.L. Peiris will have a formidable counterpart. Mrs. Swaraj is also reputed to have been one of the dissenting voices in the BJP during Modi’s ascent as the Party’s Prime Ministerial candidate, and it is an indication of the respect she commands that Modi has magnanimously rewarded her with one of the three (or four) key portfolios.
The Sri Lankan government should also not make the mistake of misreading Tamil Nadu’s relationship with the new Modi government. Tamil Nadu is an industrial power house in the Indian economy and the State has maintained its economic strength independent of the corruption and antics of both the DMK and AADMK governments. But the extraordinary electoral success of the AADMK in the Lok Sabha elections signal some new developments in Tamil Nadu politics, although it would be childish to compare the victory of Jayalalitha’s AADMK in Tamil Nadu and the success of Modi’s BJP at the national level. The breakdown of alliances in Tamil Nadu split the opposition votes in every riding enabling the AADMK candidates to win easily. Yet, in most of the electorates the AADMK obtained huge majorities indicating the overall satisfaction of the electorate with the State’s economy and its incumbent government. Regional caste concentrations that have been a factor in previous elections were smashed by the AADMK wave in this election. Jayalalitha has had a friendly relationship with Modi in the past and that is on schedule to be re-established at their first post-election meeting on June 3, in New Delhi. She has in the past flirted with Modi’s and BJP’s anti-conversion Hinduthva ideology, and it is quite possible that she stayed away from a Left-front alliance to keep her options open to deal with a BJP government. For much of the campaign, Jayalalitha did not attack Modi or the BJP, and it was only towards the end she took them on because of the fear that she would lose minority votes if was seen as being soft on Modi and the BJP.
The June 3 meeting between Modi and Jayalalitha is billed to be on economic issues and centre-state finances. Apparently, she is trying restart with Modi what she started with Manmohan Singh three years ago and went nowhere. Modi and Jayalalitha will need each other politically and to what extent the Sri Lankan Tamil question will figure in their powwows is anybody’s guess for now. However, it will not be prudent for the Sri Lankan government to assume that Jayalalitha will not have any influence on Modi’s Sri Lankan policy, and it will be equally farfetched for Tamil matinee dreamers to see in Jayalalitha’s electoral success a vindication of their daydreams.