Columns - From The Sidelines

Indian MPs visit helps separate rhetoric from reality
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

One of the clear messages conveyed during the visit by a multi-party delegation of Indian MPs to Sri Lanka, was that both India's ruling Congress Party and its main Opposition Bharatha Janata Party (BJP) are on the same page when it comes to their small neighbour across the Palk Strait.

The signal was implicit in the fact that the team was led by Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. It could be interpreted also from the unity of purpose demonstrated during the tour by the team, which included five MPs from Tamil Nadu. This would suggest a certain continuity in India's approach to Sri Lanka notwithstanding a possible change of government in that country in the years ahead.

Sushma Swaraj and other Indian MPs in a conversation with IDPs

Swaraj is considered to be the most likely contender for the post of prime minister in the event the Opposition comes to power in the 2014 election. She is described by Venkat Narayan as "a top-ranking leader in the BJP. Sharp and articulate, she has served two terms in the Rajya Sabha, and this is her third term in the Lok Sabha. She has been Information & Broadcasting Minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee's cabinet, a chief minister of Delhi."

The visit was boycotted by the two parties that profess the greatest concern for the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils -- Tamil Nadu's DMK and AIADMK. While the 12 member delegation toured parts of the North, East and central hills for six days to observe at firsthand how Sri Lanka's Tamils live (including those in the last remaining IDP camp in Vavuniya), back in Tamil Nadu, the DMK, which is a constituent party of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, was calling upon the UN to conduct a referendum on Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. DMK leader M Karunanidhi waxed eloquent at public meetings that the pursuit of Eelam (in Sri Lanka) was his 'life's mission.'

It would seem that for the Dravidian parties the chasm between rhetoric and reality has never been as wide as at the present time. The Chennai-based 'Hindu' editorially berated Karunanidhi over his referendum call, asserting that India had its own good reasons for seeking a solution within a united Sri Lanka, and appealing to the Tamil Nadu parties to "see the sense behind this".

Upon the delegation's return, one of the MPs, T.K. Rangarajan (CPI-M) reportedly said, when asked about Karunanidhi's demand for UN intervention, "the team interacted almost with every Tamil leader and none of them, including representatives of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) pressed for Eelam."

Swaraj briefing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the visit on her return said she was 'satisfied' with it and that rehabilitation efforts were 'good and ahead of schedule'. But on Wednesday DMK stalwart T.R. Baalu was reported as having told the Lok Sabha that "tyranny in the Tamil areas was continuing and Sinhalese army men were roaming around Tamil habitats in Sri Lanka and 'thousands of people have been kept behind barbed wire fences.'"

Would it not occur to the Indian people that it is funny how Swaraj and her team didn't notice any of these things? When a team of Tamil Nadu MPs visited Sri Lanka in 2009, AIADMK chief Jayalalitha who was then in the opposition, pooh-poohed the visit claiming that it was not an all-party delegation and did not include any opposition members. This time around the team was led by the Leader of the Opposition, no less, with representatives from at least seven political parties, but Jayalalitha was the first to pull out her representative, again dismissing the exercise as 'eyewash.'

It is clear from their behaviour that these politicians would rather live in a fantasy world, than face reality that would rob them of their favourite vote-getting dog-and-pony-show and the rhetoric that goes with it. Yet the ramifications of their influence on India's Central Government are not to be underestimated, as the UNHRC vote relating to the US-led resolution against Sri Lanka showed. The centre buckled under pressure mounted by the DMK, which threatened to pull out of the UPA coalition.

It appears that the Sri Lankan issue is increasingly intruding on Indian politics at the national level. The increasing internationalization of Sri Lanka's unresolved post-war problems can only be detrimental to the country's long term interests. Thirteenth amendment or no 13th amendment, if a political solution is arrived at through accommodation of the needs of the concerned parties within the country, there will be fewer excuses for interference from without. This is the best bulwark against any designs of big powers or other parties with vested interests.

President Rajapaksa's position is that any solution would have to be acceptable to all communities and that a Parliamentary Select Committee provides the mechanism for this. He has reportedly asserted in his discussions with the Indian delegation that the TNA were not the sole representatives of Sri Lanka's Tamils. While this is a valid point, it may be seen that the TNA is a key participant, and the talks are deadlocked owing to their not having nominated members to the PSC.

TNA leader R. Sampanthan has said the TNA is 'not averse' to participating in the PSC. More importantly, he maintains that his party seeks a solution through dialogue and within the framework of a united country. This assurance was also given to the visiting Indian MPs.

It is important to note that although there is a deadlock, the statements from both the government and the TNA seem to show that there are no male fides on either side. So it would seem there is a need to identify the factors that stand in the way of proceeding with the talks, and address them. For the seasoned negotiators within the government coalition, it should not be an insurmountable problem to do this. The need of the hour would seem to be some visible sign of progress.

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