Does Modi’s J-K move shut the door on Lankan intervention?

N Sathiya Moorthy | | 7 January 2020 

The problem for India may not stop with abrogation of Article 370 and the possibility of Sri Lanka telling them that the ethnic issue was an ‘internal affair’ of that nation — if and when it came to that. Citing the Centre’s decision to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir, the Colombo dispensation too could tell New Delhi and the rest of the world that even the re-merger of Sri Lanka’s North and the East, sought by the Tamils, too, was an ‘internal affair’ of their country, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

Now that neighbouring southern Sri Lanka is out of the presidential poll mode and is preparing for the even more complicated parliamentary elections, due later this year, can India still hope to ‘intervene’ in the ‘internal affairs’ of the island-nation as believed ahead of the abrogation of Article 370 and 35-A in the context of ‘special status’ for Jammu and Kashmir?

The question assumes significance after New Delhi described the constitutional change-over as an ‘internal affair’ of the nation, implying that third nations, including the US and the rest of the West, leave alone traditional adversaries in Pakistan and China, taking a different view of the matter – and consequent Indian claims – was not welcome.

Like the abrogation of Article 370, and later the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which again India has described as an ‘internal affair’, Sri Lanka too can now tell the rest of the world that the ‘ethnic issue’ is an internal affair of that nation. This could be independent of all the claims and charges of the nation’s Tamil minority, which has successively supported — rather, demanded — ‘international intervention’ of the UNHRC kind, through these post-war years

There may however be one noticeable difference between the past and the present. In the post-war years, India and the rest of the international community (read: West) said that then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was ‘shifting the goal-posts’ and frequently so, over finding a political solution to the ethnic issue. In comparison, successor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was smart enough not to take the West head-on, but purchased enough time for his government to dilute the UNHRC concerns without moving much on addressing the spirit and content of the UN body’s much-flaunted Resolution: 30/1 with relation to credible and independent inquiry into ‘war-crimes’.mmended by

President Maithripala Sirisena was even more wishy-washy than Mahinda R. He would promise what the world wanted on war-crimes probe and the like, both in UNHRC and the UN General Assembly, the very year he was elected president (2015), and return home to eat his own words, with an equally straight face. No marks for guessing the West’s helplessness and haplessness in the matter, for their hurried response to Mahinda’s game-plans of the time, and engineering a ‘regime-change’ in 2015.

Unlike the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo on the one hand and his own elder brother and party boss, Mahinda R, who is at present his prime minister, incumbent President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is considered a straight-shooter in such matters, considering his own long service in the Sri Lanka Army (SLA). He may not mince words if and when it came to stating the obvious to international interlocutors and in international forums like the UNHRC and the UNGA.

It thus remains to be seen if President Gota would decide to address the UNGA or any other world forums later this year, when they become due. In between, there is the UNHRC in March and also possibly the September session for his government to confront on the international arena.

On the domestic scene, his party and leadership would have faced the all-important parliamentary election, where obtaining a simple majority could well be even more difficult than his own presidential poll victory — that too with a substantial, 10-per cent victory margin.

A two-thirds electoral victory in the 225-seat parliament seems just out of the question, though post-poll realignments and cross-overs could still help President Gota and his party to achieve precisely as much. He will require as much for effecting the kind of constitutional amendments that he wants, to re-strengthen the executive presidency, diluted by the predecessor dispensation.

In the changed environment of Easter Sunday serial-blasts overnight made ‘national security’ the major talking point for Sri Lankans, especially the ‘swing voters’, who contributed to a massive Gota victory on November 16.  In his maiden address to parliament on January 3, President Gota too put national security on the top of his administration’s agenda, along with the protection, if not strengthening of the ‘unitary status’ of the Sri Lankan State.

In adaptable terms, such an approach could and should put ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘nation’s authority’ along with a strong and independent foreign policy. Unlike in the case of their political rivals, who managed and mis-managed State affairs, including foreign and security policies, their traditional constituencies across the board expect the Rajapaksas to be tough-talking leaders, who should not mince words while dealing with their international interlocutors.

India is one of them, and from time to time the most important of them — though not the only one, particularly after the ‘adversarial’ UNHRC vote in 2012, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president. Between the two again, second-line party leaders, cadres and constituencies alike see Gota as a tougher and uncompromising leader than brother Mahinda. Considering that he could still work in isolation mode compared to Mahinda R, who still remains the popular face and vote-catcher for the family and their SLPP, Gota has no reason — or, justification — to behave otherwise, unless he deliberately chose to modify his public image, nearer home and afar.

President Gota has since reminded his audience in different venues, how he had won near-exclusively on the votes polled in his favour by the ‘majority’ Sinhala constituency, and how the minorities, comprising Tamils Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, had deserted the Rajapaksas once again. He still promised a fair deal to all religions beyond his majority Buddhism and for all ethnicities, too, but Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders of various hues have already taken exception to his ‘vote-share’ talk as unbecoming of a nation’s president, elected as such and not as the ‘president of the Sinhala-Buddhists alone’.

Nothing much is expected on political negotiations for a full and final settlement of power-sharing before the parliamentary polls and possibly the provincial council elections in all nine provinces, delayed by months and years by the predecessor dispensation, fearing a complete rout. The TNA is expected to sweep the Tamil seats in the North and the East, and aspires to enter non-traditional areas in capital Colombo and other ‘southern’ electorates and electoral districts, too. The party is expected to sweep the Northern PC polls and also win, if in the company of local Muslim parties, the Eastern PC, too. However, their alliance is still a big question.

Post-poll, the multi-party TNA can be expected to flaunt its numbers to revive its political demands for a just and final solution to the ethnic issue and power-sharing processes, which they had wantonly abandoned in the name of a constitution assembly under the previous regime, knowing full well that it would remain a non-starter as far as the final results were concerned. They are sure to then knock at the doors of India and the rest of the international community, asking them to obtain the Tamils rights from an ‘uncompromising’ Rajapaksa clan, now represented by President Gota. Intermittently, they will also revive calls for ‘war crimes probe’, at times at the instance of the West, which seems unwilling to re-adjust itself to the ‘regime-change’ in Sri Lanka, effected this time by voters.

For India, all of it means multiple problems on the Sri Lankan ethnic front, independent of other telling issues like the ‘China factor’ and possible Pakistani efforts to wean away Colombo from India. Even without it, post-cold war, South Asian neighbourhood has ceased to be the ‘traditional area of Indian influence’, to the specific advantage of the US ally and other western friends. If the erstwhile Manmohan Singh dispensation paved the way through the first UNHRC vote in 2012, the incumbent Narendra Modi government has only played along.

In the case of the TNA and other Tamil parties, they have mostly stayed away from India from the post-war period in particular, and more so after Narendra Modi and the BJP came to power. There is nothing on record to show that the TNA leadership sought to meet with the new leaders for detailed discussions in Delhi, other than their customary courtesy call on PM Modi when he visited Colombo and Jaffna, twice in two years during his first term as PM.

The TNA has not shied away from displaying its greater affinity towards the US, obviously independent of India, during the period, though after Gota came to power, some of them are talking in public about meeting with Indian leadership in Delhi.

It was a critical mistake that the TNA might have committed as the BJP-NDA government at the top-most rungs do not know any of their leaders personally, nor does PM Modi have similar access to the Rajapaksas on the Sri Lankan State side, despite an occasional meeting at their levels through the past five years in office. Even those meetings, barring President Gota’s maiden overseas visit, to Delhi, post-poll, involved Mahinda Rajapaksa and once, his son, Namal Rajapaksa, MP.

For a leader who seems to lay great faith on personal chemistry with global leaders through his first term in office, PM Modi too may be at a disadvantage on that score — leave aside President Gota, who had presented himself as being aloof, through the past decade and more.

The problem for India may not stop with abrogation of Article 370 and the possibility of Sri Lanka telling them that the ethnic issue was an ‘internal affair’ of that nation — if and when it came to that. Citing the Centre’s decision to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir, the Colombo dispensation too could tell New Delhi and the rest of the world that even the re-merger of Sri Lanka’s North and the East, s sought by the Tamils, too, was an ‘internal affair’ of their country.

What then that could link India to Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue is the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, which is an international agreement under global law and practices. But then, citing international laws and ICJ rulings may not be the way, PM Modi’s India could promote his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. 

After all, New Delhi already has on record, a senior minister of then Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, referring to J & K issue, but by twisting the tale to say that just as New Delhi was commenting on Maldivian internal affairs, they could also do so — but were not doing it, after all! 

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative of Observer Research Foundation.

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