Columns -Thoughts from London

No help from the divine

By Neville de Silva

Tamil Nadu’s quarrelling politicians seem to have been abandoned even by the gods. Each time the southern State’s chief minister goes into his hostage-taking mode and demands that India’s central government send its external affairs minister to punish the Sri Lanka Government, something intervenes to divert attention away from Colombo.

Muthuvel Karunanidhi is, of course, playing politics and everybody knows it, most of all the man himself. The closer the Tamil Nadu state elections get, the shriller will be Karunanidhi’s urging that Pranab Mukherjee rushes to Colombo and uses its big power clout to end the fighting. It is not only that events often with external ramifications, get in the way of the chief minister’s political manoeuvres but he himself is seen hiding in the closet, as it were, afraid of his own shadow.

Throw the mind back a couple of months when Karunanidhi paraded like a colossus threatening not only to resign from the Lok Sabha but pull the whole Manmohan Singh government down by calling on all his DMK members and affiliates to resign from parliament. What crude theatre it was as Karunanidhi’s daughter herself handed over her resignation from the upper house, the Rajya Sabha- not however to parliamentary officials but to her dear dad. There they were all on tenterhooks thinking that Prime Minister Singh would be struggling to survive with a minority government when Karunanidhi and his cohorts pulled the plug on the Congress Party-led coalition in New Delhi. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu was holding the centre to ransom. Send Pranab Mukherjee instantly to Colombo to force the Rajapaksa administration to call a ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers and prepare the way to peace negotiations.

Alas, while Karunanidhi and the far more vocal Vaiko and a couple of others of the same mental frame were shouting themselves hoarse about what they would do in the event of a weak response from New Delhi, all hell broke loose in Mumbai when well coordinated terrorist attacks took the country’s financial and entertainment centre by surprise. That three-four-day stand off that saw death and destruction unprecedented in the manner in which it was launched, caused accusations and denials that brought Indo-Pakistan relations to a new recent low. Even if it was accepted that there was no Pakistan Government involvement in the attacks that immediately led commentators to dub it India’s 9/11, there seemed to be a hand that stretched across the common frontier between the two nuclear neighbours.
India’s understandable concern with the Mumbai attacks and the external involvement in them immediately turned it into the top priority for Indian leaders. It also caused terrible worries among world powers for fear that the two nuclear neighbours might begin trading punches that could eventually lead to a more serious conflagration. So the Karunanidhi confrontation ended up in the backburner despite the chief minister, his colleagues and friends holding hands in the pouring rain. Their avowed concern was for the Sri Lankan Tamils who were said to be the unfortunate victims of the Rajapaksa government’s military offensive against the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers have been banned by the Indian government as a terrorist organisation for the past 16 years.

While Vaiko and Ramadoss who have been doing their own thing to try and bail out the LTTE and also embarrass Karunanidhi for what they claimed was his vacillation and his pusillanimity, the chief minister was biding his time waiting for another push against New Delhi. As soon as there were visible signs that India will pull back from the brink, if it had ever seriously contemplated it though contingencies required that New Delhi be prepared for any eventuality, Tamil Nadu’s boss man now back in the saddle of his party, resumed his cry for prompt action against Sri Lanka.

It is never really clear whether the Tamil Nadu politicians are trying to save the LTTE from being cornered or whether their concern is genuinely for the northern Tamils. There is no doubt where people like Vaiko and the like-minded stood. Karunanidhi who is trying to call the shots, left doubts about where his sympathies lay because of his political pendulum- swings. Even if one were to go along with the more charitable view that he was actually concerned about the northern Tamils caught up in the war, Karunanidhi suddenly found himself in a minefield.

It was while the chief minister and other Tamil Nadu politicians were once more on their hobby horse that the international human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch released its report that quite candidly claimed that the LTTE was preventing the Tamils caught up in the conflict from the leaving the war zones. Not only that. Human Rights Watch said that the LTTE was using the Tamil civilians as a human shield and as labour in the building of the Tiger’s defence structures. These findings have undermined the Tamil Nadu argument that it is the government offensive which is exposing the civilians to danger. Had the civilians a choice they might have travelled south away from the fighting.

So the urgency that Karunanidhi, his allies and others showed in urging a Mukherjee visit seems to have dissipated. Pranab Mukherjee told a media conference a few days ago that he will be going to Sri Lanka but that he could not say when he will be doing so. He did however say that a devolution package would be welcome, one that provides powers to the periphery without endangering Sri Lankan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Another factor that is now likely to further delay a Mukherjee visit is the resounding electoral victory of Sheikh Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh. She returns to power after six years or so even though she was in jail on corruption and fraud charges recently. It might be recalled, Hasina the eldest child of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the first president of independent Bangladesh, was one of two children who escaped when her father and the rest were killed in a military coup in 1975. Hasina and her younger sister Rehana were in Germany at the time and so escaped. Thereafter Hasina lived in exile in India and has been close to New Delhi since that time. India would be keen to strengthen relations with Bangladesh after several years and Mukherjee would see this as one of his immediate priorities. Interestingly Sheikh Hasina has called for a strong united response to terrorism and called for regional cooperation in this battle.

This should warm the cockles of South Asian and regional governments that are at the butt end of terrorism and are now seeking to join hands in a common fight to minimise, if not eliminate this modern scourge. It would seem the gods are angry at the Karunanidhi kolam`.

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