By Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami and Archana Arul
If one were to go by strictly civilisational and historical contexts India and Sri Lanka should have had the best of bilateral relationships in the region of South Asia.
But sadly that has not been the case, for the two nations have been involved in bitter acrimony over the last few decades, some of it having to do with strategic compulsions and a lot that can be pinned down to the fashion in which the minority Tamils have been subjected to, both during the brutal ethnic conflict that plagued that island nation for nearly three decades and in the last five years after the end of that traumatic period.
Unfortunately for India, decision makers in New Delhi have been weighed down by domestic political compulsions where the mere survival of the political order in our nation’s capital meant that the government there has had to dance to the tunes of political partners in Tamil Nadu. It was not merely that India’s foreign policy was mortgaged to the whims and fancies of alliances in Tamil Nadu — one could say the same as far as New Delhi’s relations with Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar as well, to mention a few.
But May 2014 signalled a chance of a definite shift in foreign policy making where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition have made a significant difference. The fact that new Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi made a conscious and deliberate effort to reach out to South Asia and its leaders sent a strong signal that foreign policy interests of India were going to be calculated on national and strategic factors, and not in a desperate attempt to cling on to power. For the first time in a very long period, New Delhi made it clear to its neighbours that reaching out was a two way street.
January 2015 can be seen as yet another milestone in bilateral relations in the sense that the forthcoming presidential elections in Sri Lanka on Jan 8 could make all the difference. It may not be a game changer, for foreign policies do not abruptly change course; yet the emerging scheme of things in Colombo could be an eye opener for both bilateral ties and the regional balance of power. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has his political challenges cut out even if he manages to hold on to a substantial base of support in his country. And that raises a very pertinent question: What should New Delhi’s stance be in this forthcoming presidential election in the island nation. The prudent and sober voices will say only one thing: Stay clear of the democratic political and electoral process evolving in Sri Lanka. And the first impressions are that the Modi government may well just do that.
Irrespective of what emerges in the presidential polls in Sri Lanka, it is a rare opportunity for the political leadership in that country to come to terms with some of the troubling questions it has been facing in the last five years, especially as it pertains to the future of the Tamils. Simply maintaining that he has got rid of “terrorists” and “terrorism” may get Rajapaksa votes and propel him to victory on Jan 8, but that is not the end of the story both for his own country and the relationship with India.
It is well within Colombo’s rights to nurture relationships with countries like China and Pakistan; but it is politically and strategically imprudent to wave those cards when difficult and pertinent questions are raised by India and the world community on issues of accountability and “real” devolution of powers. Both Rajapaksa and his presidential contest opposition leaders will have to realise that if Sri Lanka is being hammered within the Commonwealth and outside, it is on account of a deliberate unwillingness to come to terms with ground realities.
And if the world body is asking for an international probe for accountability and war crimes, it has precisely to do with powers-that-be in Colombo refusing to account for how some 40,000 — or more — people could have died in the closing stages of the ethnic conflict. And this does not include the thousands who are unaccounted for. Military personnel absolving the military for any misconduct during the last phase of the conflict is simply not going to wash. And this is precisely what the international community and the non-governmental organizations are telling Sri Lanka. Making the point that all these institutions and individuals calling for accountability are “sympathizers” of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or somehow on its payroll, is not going to work either.
For that matter, the challenge for Modi, the BJP and the NDA is not simple by any stretch of imagination. For a party that is making steady inroads in many states since May 2014, the BJP cannot wish away the domestic compulsions in Tamil Nadu as it searches for allies and alliances to make a mark in the 2016 state assembly elections. As much politically savvy it may be nationally, the BJP cannot wish away the future of the Tamils in Sri Lanka as it seeks to make political inroads in Tamil Nadu. Rajapaksa releasing Indian fisher folk and even saving some from the gallows may be good gestures, but they certainly fall short of the larger picture.
The year 2015 and beyond is something to be watched very closely for both New Delhi and Colombo for the road to genuine strengthening of the bilateral relationship depends very much on what happens in the island nation and the next steps that are going to be taken by Rajapaksa or any of his major challengers in the presidential poll. The winning strategy in Sri Lanka is not in words, or occasionally waving the China card, but in deeds.
(Sridhar Krishnaswami is a former senior journalist with The Hindu in Chennai, Singapore and Washington. He is presently Head of the departments of Journalism and Mass Communication and International Relations of the Faculty of Science and Humanities at SRM University, Chennai. Archana Arul is a Research Scholar in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of the same university. They can be reached at either email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org)