When dealing with neighbouring countries, India's main predicament is to choose between two options, both of which are uncertain and without hassle. Sri Lanka has thrown up the same challenge again. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Army chief Sarath Foneska are contesting for the highest position. Rajapaksa has constantly looked towards New Delhi. Foneska, too, has said he would cultivate the best of relations with India. Therefore, the only choice for New Dellhi is between a known devil and the unknown one.
So far New Delhi has backed Rajapaksa, not because he was the best but because none else had the popularity he commanded or the general acceptance required. Foneska has made New Delhi rethink because he too has become popular. He had led the troops to vanquish the Tamil Tigers who had carved out in northern Sri Lanka an independent territory. India may not have liked the manner in which the victory was achieved but it did not want the Tigers to succeed because they were primarily a bunch of terrorists.
The real test for New Delhi is who out of the two is sincere about devolving power and giving a real say in governance to the different parts of Sri Lanka, particularly the north where Tamils are in a majority. True, while in America, Foneska, then in uniform, said that he would give it up if it (the country) continues to go on the wrong path even after defeating terrorism. Wrong path would mean the dictatorial ways of governance. But he was quite ruthless when it came to dealing with the Tamils under the influence of the LTTE. Scores of instances of human rights violations have been noted by the international community with horror. Nearly 300,000 Tamils detained in camps had a hard time although they had no love lost for the LTTE and had only bowed because of age-old fear.
Rajapaksa's record too has been not without blemish. Even the UN Secretary General vehemently criticized the treatment meted out to the Tamils in the north after the Tigers were defeated. Tamils elsewhere complained of extortions without remedy even when their MPs brought the matter to the attention of Rajapaksa. But there was little remedy.
Indeed, the Tamils have become important because their vote in coming presidential election may be crucial. The vote of the Sinhalese is bound to split between Rajapaksa and Foneska. Also, thousands of Tamils would exercise their vote for the first time because they faced the LTTE threats of reprisals if they dared to go near the polling booth.
Many Tamils living abroad had the illusion of Eelam (independence) and rationalised the whims of Velupillai Prabhakaran. They were misled because no country could support the demand for secession. What has to be realized is the difference between the government and the country. Tamils still have not reconciled to the fact that they have to live with the Sinhalese, however impossible they are in their behaviour. But the sins of the rulers should not visit the country. The government can be defeated at the polls but the harm done to the country is irreparable. The government belongs to a party or parties but the country belongs to all the Sri Lankans, irrespective of their religion and ethnicity.
New Delhi has always been against any effort to harm the integrity of Sri Lanka. India has advocated pluralism, ethos of its independence movement. That is the reason why a powerful person like Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi could not help the LTTE, although he was in touch with Prabhakaran and had latent sympathy for the LTTE. Still he realized that the Eelam was no solution to the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet Karunanidhi preferred to keep quiet lest he should annoy the LTTE.
Rajapaksa should be congratulated for announcing the presidential election on January 26 when he still had two years left to complete his tenure. Maybe, he thought that his victory against the LTTE would help him win the parliamentary election due late next year. No doubt, the outcome of the presidential election will affect the parliamentary poll. But Rajapaksa has gambled. Post-LTTE elections can be dicey because till the LTTE existed, all that a candidate in the presidential poll had to do was to convince the Sinhalese that he or she would eliminate the LTTE.
Rajapaksa's landslide victory last time was because of that. Foneska, the successful retired general, can claim that he vanquished the LTTE. It would be interesting to watch who out of the two would emerge victorious because the contest is tough and can swing either way.