Battered by the public agitation over Pakistan-based Lakshar-e-Tayyiba's devastating 26-11 attack on Mumbai, the dilemma for the Congress government in New Delhi seems to be growing from the proportions of a political storm to one that of a cyclone.
The string of security lapses that enabled ten armed youth to cause mayhem, leaves some 200 killed and 300 more injured, in India's bustling commercial capital and has led to public outrage not to mention indignation worldwide. Exposures by the vibrant Indian media, particularly electronic, on the heart-rending tales of how people died, were wounded or endured onerous ordeals have spawned a major outcry against politicians. Their reportage has also won for their security forces and the police overwhelming public adoration and respect.
In this turmoil, what has emerged as some consolation is the fact that time honoured traditions remain in the world's largest democracy. Some Ministers and officials resigned taking "moral responsibility" over what happened. If that was honourable in India, in Sri Lanka the tradition seems to have reversed. Here, both officials and politicians find various reasons to tell the public whom they serve why they should not resign. In India, it also prompted the government to immediately rectify shortcomings and give priority to the needs of its security organisations.
Yet, some aspects of the fallout from the terror in Mumbai seem irreparable. One is India's relations with its northern neighbour, Pakistan. If the peace process between the two countries remains suspended after the incidents, there is gradual erosion in the cordial ties between the two nuclear powers. A day hardly passes without finger pointing at each other, both from New Delhi and Islamabad. India demanded the arrest and return of 20 terror suspects from Pakistan to be told by Islamabad that they would be tried in their own country if evidence was available.
Accusations in the Indian media almost daily speak of the involvement of Pakistan's notorious Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) handlers in the Lakshar-e-Tayyiba attack. A tart response to that came from a one time Pakistani Foreign Minister, Gohar Ayub Khan. He told India's NDTV television the problems in Mumbai were the result of the failure of India's armed forces and the police. Asked what he thought Pakistan should do, Khan replied they (Pakistan) would have to first ascertain whether the Indian claims were "cooked up." The fact that acrimonious exchanges are plunging relations between the two countries that have fought three wars is a stormy prospect for the government in New Delhi. Worse enough, the destabilising effects it would cause to the sub continent.
Making such a situation even worse for the Congress government comes from developments in India's southern neighbour, Sri Lanka. Amidst all the pressures brought about by 26/11, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had to listen to some strong words from a delegation led by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Muthuvel Karunanidhi. "The people of Tamil Nadu and Tamils across the world," he declared, "are deeply agitated over the continuing genocide of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka and unabated abuse of human rights. He handed over to Singh a memorandum. On the same day, Karunanidhi also met the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Sonia Gandhi, whose husband, one time Prime Minister, Rajiv was assassinated by Tiger guerrillas.
Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) is an ally of the Congress Government. His visit to New Delhi followed large-scale protests in Tamil Nadu over allegations that the ongoing military campaign was causing severe hardships to civilians in the Wanni. The delegation wanted the central government to issue a "stern warning" to the Sri Lanka government to stop the military campaign and engage in peace talks with the guerrillas.
Immediately after the meeting ended, Karunanidhi announced to the media that Premier Singh would send Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to persuade Sri Lanka to resume peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after declaring a ceasefire. In marked contrast, there was no official statement from the Indian Prime Minister's office.
The Sunday Times has learnt from reliable official channels in New Delhi that Foreign Minister Mukherjee will indeed make a request to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, when he does arrive in Colombo, to go for a ceasefire and resume peace talks. This is whilst reiterating India's call to ensure "the sufferings of civilians" in the Wanni is addressed immediately. Earlier, thinking in official circles was for India to act as "mail carrier" and convey the message delivered by Tamil Nadu political parties. However, there have been overriding concerns. "The nation has been galvanised into unity by the Mumbai terror. The centre will not treat Tamil Nadu as a separate entity but rather speak with one voice," an official in New Delhi who did not wish to be identified said.
If that much is a certainty, many other questions remain. First among them is a date for Mukherjee, widely regarded as the Congress government's troubleshooter, to visit Colombo. Opinion appears to be sharply divided. When Karunanidhi asked Premier Singh when he would send his Foreign Minister to Colombo, he replied "very soon." An early arrival, before troops re-capture Kilinochchi, would only aggravate matters and force a strongly negative response from Sri Lanka.
Exerting pressure on the Sri Lanka government to call off the military offensive, announce a ceasefire and resume peace talks would be suicidal for the Rajapaksa administration. This is particularly at a time when President Rajapaksa has called upon the guerrillas to lay down arms as a prelude to talking peace. He is widely reported to be toying with the idea of dissolving Parliament soon after the re-capture of Kilinochchi. These plans are buoyed by hopes of returning to power with an overwhelming majority, a prospect that cannot be discounted altogether.
Despite mounting cost of living, a deteriorating economy amidst a global meltdown, accusations of human rights violations, a worsening law and order situation, the government's only plank of popularity is the marketing of the war to the Sri Lankan public. It would be difficult to tell the public that the war was halted under pressure from the government of India without running the risk of being accused of complicity with India. That could be viewed as treacherous in the light of hundreds of troops dying and thousands being injured.
Hence, the Indian interest is now focusing on ascertaining when Kiliochchi would be re-captured. India High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Alok Prasad, a strong ally of the Rajapaksa administration, raised this question during informal chats with security forces top brass. The occasion was a lunch he hosted to a team from India's National Defence College (NDC) at his official residence, 'India House' at Munidasa Cumaratunga Mawatha in Colombo 7 on Friday.
A deadline for the re-capture of Kilinochchi has turned out to be an impossible task. It is no secret that since the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils election campaign in August, this year, government leaders have made repeated claims that Kilinochchi was just a matter of hours or days. The most concerted military effort last week was marred following the havoc caused by Cyclone Nisha. There is increasing evidence from the battlefield that the guerrillas are ceding more areas to advancing troops in order to enhance their defences at Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Thus, for the troops, overcoming resistance and seizing Kilinochchi could be days or weeks away. In the light of this, Mukherjee's arrival, if delayed for too long, could only exacerbate problems for the Indian government. On the other hand, a re-capture of Kilinochchi would, even without New Delhi's prodding, may see the government making a victory declaration and calling for a parliamentary election.
This is a dilemma for Mukherjee and the position he plans to take up may also be a volte face for India.
It was only in October, this year; India re-iterated its tacit support for the ongoing military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. This is not surprising since India had also provided non-lethal military hardware and vital intelligence information for the Sri Lanka government's war effort. After the President's Special Envoy Basil Rajapaksa visited India for talks with Foreign Minister Mukherjee, a Joint Statement declared "both sides agreed that terrorism should be countered with resolve." As pointed out in these columns earlier, the use of the words "with resolve," clearly amounted to the rejection of the demand by major political parties in Tamil Nadu led by DMK to stop the war.
Last month, President Rajapaksa held talks in New Delhi with Premier Singh on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation) meeting. A statement issued by the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo said Rajapaksa "…….emphasised that he and his administration have always been for a political solution. It is the LTTE that repeatedly violated its obligations and embarked on a path of conflict and terror. The President also drew attention to the past track record of the LTTE using the ceasefire to regroup and re-arm and not serious about a political solution."
There is a dichotomous situation both for New Delhi and for Colombo. For the former, calling upon Rajapaksa to halt a war for which it had offered support "with resolve" would be a complete about turn. To support the Sri Lanka government's military campaign "with resolve" came after a marked shift from an earlier stance. That was the one articulated by India's National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan to Sri Lanka's Deputy High Commissioner in New Delhi, Palitha Ganegoda when he delivered a demarche. A démarche is a formal diplomatic representation of one government's official position, views, or wishes on a given subject to another.
He was summoned on October 6 to be told of India's "grave concern and unhappiness" over the growing casualties of Tamil civilians, as a result of the military campaign in northern Sri Lanka. He also highlighted the need to revive the political process in Sri Lanka. A statement from India's External Affairs Ministry said "it was pointed out that there was a need for the Sri Lankan government to act with greater restraint and address the growing feeling of insecurity among the minority community."
For the latter, changing its ongoing military course would be going counter to two of its publicly articulated positions. First is the call to the guerrillas to lay down arms before any talks - a demand which LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran rejected during his November 27 "Maveerar" ("Great Heroes") Day speech. The other is the position articulated by President Rajapaksa to Premier Singh that the LTTE had used previous peace talks to embark on a course of violence and terror.
However, an area where Mukherjee is expected to strike hard will be complaints about the harassment of civilians and allegations that food stocks were scarce in the Wanni. The government has continued to maintain that adequate supplies are being sent. Another is the Indian complaint that despite repeated assurances, the government of Sri Lanka has not formulated any political proposals to resolve the ethnic issue. There are fears in India's officialdom that in the aftermath of the re-capture of Kilinochchi, the likelihood of such proposals being brought forward would diminish.
For the Congress Government, the sentiments of Tamil Nadu cannot be ignored, particularly at a time when parliamentary elections are due early next year. Any delay on their part would only invite more pressure from Tamil Nadu. The LTTE is aware of this position. It has been using its proxy, members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), to mount more pressure. For this purpose, TNA MPs were to undertake more foreign tours.
On Friday, the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) failed to obtain an order from the Colombo Chief Magistrate Nishantha Hapuaratchchi to restrain four TNA parliamentarians from travelling abroad. TID operatives told Court that Selvarajah Kajendran, Pakiyalingam Ariyanetran (both from Jaffna district), and Senathirajah Jeyanandamoorthy (Batticaloa District) had made speeches in June 2006 advocating a separate state in Sri Lanka. This was contrary to the oath they took as MPs to uphold the unitary character of Sri Lanka under the 6th Amendment to the Constitution. A CD of the speeches they made was screened in Court. Similarly, the TID also sought an order to prevent Kanakalingam Sivajilingam (Jaffna district) who had made a speech in Australia in November 2008 advocating a separate state in Sri Lanka. He has still not returned to Sri Lanka.
Chief Magistrate Hapuaratchchi declined to make an ex parte order and directed TID to ask the MPs to be present in Court on December 11. However, TID sources said yesterday that the Magistrate had later quashed this order and advised them to seek the advice of the Attorney General. Both Kajendran and Ariyanethran had already left Sri Lanka when the Court made the original order. In the meanwhile, it was the oil hedging episode that took the centre stage of politics this week, especially in Parliament where the final lap of the month-long Budget debate was taking place.
Petroleum Minister A.H.M. Fowzie, who has now become a great grand-father, had little to celebrate after a Supreme Court recommendation to the President to remove him from his portfolio citing incompetence. Fowzie made a statement in Parliament baring all, and embarrassing the government in no uncertain terms when he said that Cabinet approval had been given to the controversial hedging proposal by none other than the Governor of the Central Bank.
But what Fowzie did not say was the pressure that had been put on the Ministry Secretary to prepare an urgent Cabinet Paper, that left Ministers hardly any time to study. The Central Bank on Friday issued a statement detailing out how it got involved and rejected Fowzie's claims.
The colossal loss on the part of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) by venturing into a hedge fund with some foreign banks has displayed a major weakness on the manner in which public funds are managed by the government.
In the midst of all this, there are reports that at least one foreign bank blasted by the Supreme Court for misleading the government had tried to lobby one of the petitioner's by suggesting that mounting debts the petitioner has with the bank be waived. Another has a huge overdraft facility with the same bank. These banks are trying to take the heat away from themselves, and are reported to be using the 'good offices' of even the children of important members of parliament and judicial officers who are on their staff.
The entire hedging exercise arguably had its roots with an article published in the business section of The Sunday Times some years back by a Sri Lankan national based in Canada, Upul Arunajith, a hedge trader. Arunajith had met the Governor of the Central Bank and discussed the prospect of the country entering into hedge funds. Soon thereafter, the Central Bank has suggested to the CPC to go into hedge funds in the long-term interest of the national economy. Arunajith is hired by CPC as a consultant, but is later dropped, and the CPC Deputy General Manager presents a paper for the CPC to enter into hedging contracts for the purchase of oil.
In the meantime, the Opposition United National Party (UNP) goes and makes another mess of things over the hedge-fund fiasco. Instead of carrying the message to the country, it takes the opportunity of the sittings in Parliament to present a vote of no-confidence against the government.
The motion states, inter-alia; " Whereas the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa through the implementation of the dubious 'Mahinda Chintana' has brought the country into a state of misery and to the brink of disaster, and
" Whereas the Government through the corrupt 'MiG Aircraft' deal caused our defence establishment to purchase outdated aircraft jeopardising the Air Force and its personnel and
" Whereas the Government through the wasteful and irresponsible 'Mihin Lanka' project has committed a colossal sum of Rs. 6,000 million to resurrect the insolvent Mihin Lanka airline which has already squandered Rs. 3,250 million of public funds in all totalling Rs. 9,250 million, and
" Whereas the Government through the highly suspicious 'hedging' deal entered into by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation with the foreign commercial banks and our own People's Bank without the supervision of the Auditor General to purchase the fuel requirements of this country when the oil prices in the world market rose to 147 dollars a barrel in September 2008 which dramatically slumped to 47 dollars a barrel in December 2008 thereby depriving the public of enjoying the benefits of the declining oil prices in the oil market as the Sri Lanka Petroleum Corporation had committed itself and this country to a massive foreign debt of Rs. 250 billion to the banks, and "Whereas if not for the timely intervention of the Supreme Court, the Government in order to recoup the losses running into billions of rupees incurred in the 'hedging' deal would have imposed a further burden on the already siffering masses, …."
It goes on to refer to the culpability of the Cabinet, the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry in the hedging deal; how inflation has gone up to 28.2 per cent ; how the cost-of-living has gone up and the purchasing power of the public has gone down by 348 per cent; how the government is maintaining its balance of power in Parliament by purchasing 'corrupt MPs'; maintaining a jumbo Cabinet of 110 Ministers; how the government has muzzled the media; that due to its human rights record is in danger of losing the GSP+ facility afforded to the garment industry; how by the allocation of Rs. 6,800 million to the President other sectors like health, education and transport was suffering, and that the government has failed to give salary increases to the public, private and estate sectors; and that the Government is relying "….on the war to camouflage its misdemeanours and mismanagement and continues to foster ethnic hatred and violence through the state controlled media".
While all this looks fine from an Opposition perspective, where the UNP made a mess of things is that the no-confidence motion had the following words to sum it all up;
"This House resolves that this House has no confidence in the ability of this Government to continue in office any longer".
That is the usual prayer one finds at the end of such no-confidence motions; unless such a motion calls for the appointment of a Select Committee to probe into some matter or some such requirement.
Lo and behold, this sentence was missing when the three MPs - Joseph Michale Perera, Ravi Karunanayake and Dayasiri Jayasekera -- signed it and handed it over to the Acting Secretary General of Parliament Dhammike Kithulgoda. Kithulgoda took a quick look at the motion and said that the motion was incomplete and didn't ask for Parliament to do anything with all that was stated in the motion.
The UNP High Command went into a spin on Friday evening trying to find out how on earth this paragraph fell off from the motion. Was there some hidden hand within their own ranks, hand-in-glove with the government trying to sabotage their work?
While the inquiries went into full gear, the UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made a public appeal for those MPs who left the party and joined the government to return to the fold and a pledge to hand over a proper vote of no-confidence against the government on Monday.