It was last Sunday that the telephone rang at the President's House in the Fort. India's Acting Prime Minister Pranab Mukherjee was on the line. He had been briefed a few days earlier by his Foreign Secretary Shiv Shanker Menon on his visit to Colombo the previous week. Menon in turn had been briefed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa about the government's on-going military manoeuvres to flush the armed members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) completely out of the Wanni jungles, and of the political plans thereafter.
Rajapaksa himself had just returned from a tour of Norwood in the Matale district the previous day after attending a ruling UPFA (United Peoples Front Alliance) election rally. Rajapaksa had spoken in a little bit of Tamil (he later said it didn't matter if it was 'andara demala' (broken Tamil which none understands) provided he showed that he wanted to reach out to the Tamil voters in the district. He was overtly pleased, he said, to see the national (lion) flag in the estate workers line-rooms.
The Indian Central government was under some pressure from one of its coalition partners, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagam (DMK). A 'final appeal', an ultimatum of sorts had been issued by a section of the Tamil Nadu State Assembly. The Centre in New Delhi was asked to apply pressure on the Sri Lankan government to stop the military offensive that was killing Tamil civilians in the Wanni - a euphemism by these politicians asking for the war against the LTTE to be stopped.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seemed unmoved by the plea from Tamil Nadu. He knew three things. One was that it was the LTTE that killed India's one-time premier Rajiv Gandhi (which resulted in the LTTE being a banned organization in India). Then, after the Mumbai attack in November, India could hardly be seen to encourage or support terrorism, and thirdly, that the cry within Tamil Nadu to stop the war in Sri Lanka, was not Tamil Nadu speaking en-voce'.
By now, Rajapaksa knew the mood in Tamil Nadu. With no effort exerted by his own government to lobby the Tamil politicians of that state, things simply began falling into place. The entire scenario changed with the terrorist attack on Mumbai. India at the time, was playing a balancing act in Sri Lanka. Overtly opposing, covertly supporting the military offensive. Post November, it has discarded whatever vestige of partisanship, and openly come out against terrorism in Sri Lanka.
Taking the opportunity, Rajapaksa not only welcomed Mukherjee to Colombo, but asked him to bring along Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Opposition Leader Jayalalitha Jeyaram with him. With a tinkle in his eye, he was to tell national newspaper editors this week, "after-all it can be an all party delegation from Tamil Nadu". The idea behind the invitation being to allow these Tamilian politicians to see for themselves the actual situation in the Wanni where the Sri Lanka government is accusing the LTTE of using these unfortunate civilians as human shields to stall the total annihilation of the rebel group.
News of Mukherjee's visit first broke in India, not Sri Lanka. When announcing his impending 24-hour visit to Colombo, Mukherjee made three things very clear. He said that (a) the Indian government does not support terrorism, (b) the LTTE is a banned organization in India, and (c) the primary concern of the Indian government is the safety of the civilians trapped in the fighting in the Wanni. Of course, a long-term political solution was unsaid, but could be included as the fourth point.
Not in recent memory have visits, first by an Indian Foreign Secretary, and then Foreign Minister cum Acting Prime Minister been so uneventful. When such visits are un-eventful, it is, in a sense, a certificate for good bi-lateral relations between the two countries.
No doubt several issues were not raised during either of the visits. Neither the controversial Sethusamudram canal project nor the future of Sri Lankan refugees in south India was discussed. More significantly, there was no discussion of the military offensive, except that during the Mukherjee visit, Army Commander Sarath Fonseka was asked to do the honours in explaining what was taking place in the Wanni.
Fonseka, by way of a power-point presentation showed the 'No war zone' that had been demarcated for civilians to go into. He said that the LTTE was preventing these hapless civilians from going there as they were being used as human shields.
From reports coming out of India, it would appear that it was Mukherjee who suggested that the Security Forces declare a 'ceasefire' so that civilians can go to that no-war zone without let or hindrance.
Rajapaksa then seems to have agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire to allow safe passage for the civilians to move into this zone, but insisting that there would be no let-up on the final surge into the remaining parts of Mullaitivu district where the rebel fighters are still holding out.
Mukherjee must have been impressed because on his return to India on Wednesday evening, he told waiting Indian media personnel about the 'no war zone', and that he had expressed his government's concerns for these civilians. He seemed to have no complaints to make.
In a statement issued thereafter, India said Rajapaksa had made a formal invitation to Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha to visit Sri Lanka, a move that - not that it was going to materialize given the hostility within Tamil Nadu's political canvas - was surely going to take the wind off the sails of Tamil Nadu demands to stop the war.
It has to be given to Rajapaksa that he has been able to turn India to back him in his relentless pursuit against the LTTE. The Foreign Ministry has all but abandoned Indo-Lanka relations. Minister Rohita Bogollagama is on a 11-day visit to the European Union, Czech Republic, Latvia and to speak to Sri Lankan students in Oxford University, blissfully playing no part in the Mukherjee visit which was handled entirely by Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa himself has decided on a hands-on approach to Indo-Lanka relations, and conscripted the services of his brother Basil to be the point-man for this task. The fact that Menon met Basil Rajapaksa to discuss humanitarian issues despite having met Bogollagama during his own visit, underscores the fact that even the Indians prefer it that way.
Basil Rajapaksa was unable to meet Mukherjee because he was away in New York at the time. He was dispatched by the President to brief United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-moon on the civilian situation in the Wanni in what looked like another move by the elder Rajapaksa not just to side-line Bogollagama, but to exhibit his uselessness to the Rajapaksa administration when it matters most.
A UN datelined report refers to Basil Rajapaksa as "the enforcer" in Sri Lanka's administration, and analogized him to Banki-mon's senior advisor Kim Wan-soo. The report noted that the Secretary general usually meets only visiting Heads of State (or Government), Foreign Ministers or Permanent Representatives - not an "MP, Senior Presidential Advisor" as Basil Rajapaksa was designated on the SG's schedule of appointments for the day. And even then, he was an appointed MP, not an elected MP.
On the 38th floor of the UN headquarters, where the Secretary General's office is, a belated photo-opportunity was provided for the media. Ban was accompanied by his own political advisor Nicholas Hayson, and his chief of staff Vijay Nambiar. Four diplomats from the Sri Lankan Permanent Mission at the UN accompanied Basil Rajapaksa.
The discussions between Basil and Ban revolved around the civilians trapped in the Wanni and as it happened the fact that a UN convoy with its own staff being trapped amidst the fighting.
Critics in Colombo however said that Basil Rajapaksa's visit to New York was merely to renew his US 'green card' at the taxpayers expense, something which could not be confirmed.
Back in India, there was, however, some negative reaction to the Mukherjee visit to Sri Lanka. Hardline elements have not been appeased. On Friday, Madras High Court Advocates Association members boycotted court sittings burning photographs of Rajapasa, Mukherjee and Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the Congress Party.
Elsewhere, law students made an attempt to storm the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission office in Chennai. Police arrested forty of them.
Mukherjee wrote to Karunanidhi the same day saying that the government of India will continue to work for a political settlement of the issues in Sri Lanka, including meaningful devolution and early restoration of peace. In his letter, released to the media shortly after it was delivered to Karunanidhi, he said that the "ceasefire" announced by the Sri Lanka government followed India's demand that all civilians should be able to move to safety.
Mukherjee's letter said; " I had written to you earlier about my talks with Sri Lanka president Rajapaksa in Colombo on January 27. Yesterday evening, Rajapaksa issued an appeal, giving 48 hours for free movement of civilians in the conflict zone to ensure their safety and security.
"I understand that necessary instructions to this effect have been given by the government of Sri Lanka to allow movement of civilians trapped in the conflict zone to safer areas". He also said India has added its voice to the plight of these civilians.
As the anti-Sri Lanka protests intensified after the Mukherjee visit, a 26 year old computer operator set himself on fire outside a building housing Central government offices. A member of the pro-LTTE PMK, the youth said before he died of burn wounds, "my attempt is to open the eyes of the Central and state governments to the burning issues of (Sri Lankan) Tamils". This event triggered a mob attack on the Bank of Ceylon branch in Chennai on Friday.
In the Tamil Nadu State Assembly, several members walked out saying Mukherjee's visit to Sri Lanka was "unproductive". But that same Friday, the DMK, for the first time, criticized the LTTE.
A Press trust of India (PTI) report from Chennai quoted DMK General Secretary and Tamil Nadu Finance Minister K. Anbazhagan telling the State Assembly that the LTTE was to blame for breaking the 48 hour ceasefire and preventing the civilians from taking advantage of the safe passage measures. In New Delhi earlier in the day, Menon had praised the Sri Lanka government for the 48 hour ceasefire.
In this backdrop, Rajapaksa is supremely confident that his political future is well and truly entrenched. Only sometime last year, in these columns we quoted him as telling his confidants that he had reached his "peak". "Dan mam peak eke innay", he had said. If that be the case, one wonders what form he is in now.
He made his feelings known when he met editors this week. The editors had a serious complaint to make over the continuing attacks on media freedom and on media personnel, despite repeated assurances from Rajapaksa himself that journalists need not worry about their safety and security.
Officially, the government kept saying that these attacks were aimed at discrediting the government at a time when its popularity was at an all-time high. It went further. It gave various motives and accused all and sundry of being behind these attacks.
But Rajapaksa knew best that such claims didn't hold water. Having reiterated the official position, i.e. that these attacks are committed by anti-government elements, and that by today (Feb. 1) he will come out with further details on who was behind these attacks, he seemed to confess that the attack on Rivira editor Upali Tennakoon the previous Thursday - an editor of a newspaper owned by the Rajapaksa family, and an editor who has not been excessively critical of the government was "mata gahuwa wage", - like as if he himself was attacked.
Much inferences can be drawn, and nuances imputed by this remark. He then asked Police Chief Jayantha Wickramaratne to put in place a plan of action that would ensure the safety of journalists.
The very next day, Rajapaksa conferred with his security chiefs and discussed his meetings with the editors. It was clear that the recent spate of attacks on media personnel was the one blemish that spoilt his record of achievements on the battlefield.
On this otherwise notable high, Rajapaksa is all but guaranteed of resounding victories in the upcoming Central and North Western provincial council elections. Upbeat as he is, Rajapaksa this week dissolved the Western provincial council, with the Uva and Southern pending, well before their mandates were to end. His aim is crystal clear; to wrest control of all provincial councils in the country with fresh mandates, and to get the Opposition to expend its limited financial resources in the process. The government seems to be having almost unlimited funds for the purpose, and is turning a blind-eye to the abuse of State property, especially vehicles, for electioneering purposes.
In the process, the purpose is to thoroughly demoralise the Opposition before the real-thing, or the big-event - the parliamentary General Elections sometime in July possibly.
One can see the Rajapaksa regime gearing up for the big event. Basil Rajapaksa has already moved into the SLFP's Bandaranaike stronghold of Gampaha, and is the likely candidate for the Chief Minister's post in the Western province. His MPship will be temporarily sacrificed, probably to outgoing Chief Minister Reginald Cooray, for a greater cause -- a seat in a future Parliament as an elected MP from the Gampaha district.
The Opposition is barely able to hold its ranks together. The United National Party (UNP) has already lost an organizer in Colombo North, Lilantha Perera, coming as he does from a traditional UNP family. His father and his sister were killed in the Gamini Dissanayake assassination in 1994. Perera's complaint is that the party hierarchy has appointed a second organizer for the electorate, and thereby diluted his own role as an organizer. Even the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has begun seeing defections, its one-time monolith invincibility now shattered with the defection of the Wimal Weerawansa faction to the government.
The government seems to want to emulate its Security Forces that is steam-rolling its way in the Wanni, in the political field as well; throwing the political opposition in total disarray as it prepares for the next general elections. The ground situation is such that the UNP, after long last, has been forced to change its long time inflexible stance on the war against the LTTE, and begun hailing the Security Forces in a better-late-than-never move to salvage whatever support it has left among the majority voters in rural Sri Lanka.
But while the government scores success after success in the military, and what appears to be the political field, a new flank has opened up. That is the battle with the Supreme Court.
In a somewhat extra-ordinary ruling this week, the land's highest court decided to vacate all its interim-orders on the hedging agreements between the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and five commercial banks in addition to vacating the order that the government reduce the petrol price to Rs. 100 a litre. This decision was bound to have dire political and economic consequences for the country. This was the first known case where the government has refused to comply with a Supreme Court directive - and the first known case where the Supreme Court has given an order, and withdrawn it - as a tit-for-tat for government's inaction against one of its own orders.
The rationale of both actions, the government's and the court's, is difficult to fathom. The government has made it known that imposing taxes on the people is its business, not that of the Supreme Court. The court disagrees saying that everyday it gives orders against wrongful executive actions and this is no exception. By what the Supreme Court has now ruled, the government is set to lose a colossal sum of Rs. 80 billion on a disastrous and highly suspicious oil hedging agreement the CPC had entered into. Economists point out that Sri Lanka's already tricky foreign exchange reserves are going to deteriorate drastically, and very quickly. Gross official reserves stood around US$ 3 billion mid-last year, and are down to US 1.5 billion by the end of January this year. There is a decline in foreign earnings at the moment and crunch time in Sri Lanka is due - around parliamentary election time.
The Central Bank however issued a statement soon after the somewhat 'historic' Supreme Court order. The gist of it was that the Central Bank itself has found that the hedging contract entered into by the CPC and the commercial banks was against its own directions issued to the banks "not to proceed with or give effect to the hedging transactions", and therefore that it did not approve of it.
How much these international banks will take the Central Bank ruling seriously is another matter. Unlike a court ruling from a sovereign country, the Central Bank is seen as a government agency. Already, there are reports that Citibank has gone to the international arbitration tribunal for the enforcement of the hedging contracts. Last week, Prima won an award of Rs. 4 billion from the Government following a complaint to an arbitrational tribunal in Singapore. These are not monies the government can afford to pay so easily without imposing further burdens on the ordinary people. For the moment, the government, and the people are enjoying the fruits of victory on the battlefield. But the bitter fruit of the economy is already ripening, and Rajapaksa will therefore, be quite keen to go for elections, sooner than later.