Tamil Nadu blows hot and cold with Tigers
The Sunday Times Insight
CHENNAI: After a sudden flurry of activity on the pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam front, Tamil Nadu political parties have gone quiet on Sri Lanka as they concentrate more on coalition and seat-sharing worries confronting them in the coming State Assembly elections.

The ground situation in Sri Lanka will determine whether the issue rears its head again in the run-up to the elections. A return to war and a consequent flow of refugees across the Palk Straits could make the Sri Lankan issue a natural talking point for Eelamist politicians in the State. If that will make it an important matter of interest for the general public, as in the 1980s, is another matter.

December 2005 saw two interesting developments relating to Tamil Nadu politicians and the Sri Lankan issue. First, Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and a sworn Eelamist and Prabhakaran loyalist, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi and placed before him a long list of alleged atrocities by Sri Lankan forces against Tamils.

Vaiko, who seems to have good access to Prime Minister Singh, has long taken credit for New Delhi sending a proposed India-Sri Lanka defence agreement into deep freeze. After his meeting with Singh a few days ahead of the visit of President Mahinda Rajapkse to India, Vaiko once again made this claim.

On December 29, several Tamil Nadu parties participated in a pro-LTTE meeting here that was timed for a day before President Rajapakse's intended stopover in this city to meet the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa. The meeting did not materialise and President Rajapakse scored off Chennai from his itinerary. More about that later.

Among those at the meeting were Vaiko, and S Ramadoss, leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi. Both MDMK and PMK are constituents of the ruling United Progressive Alliance at the Centre and of the DMK-led seven-party Democratic Progressive Alliance in Tamil Nadu.

The meeting was held under the auspices of the Dravida Kazhagam, led by K Veeramani. The other notable presence was that of the unswerving LTTE loyalist P Nedumaran. Pure LTTE rhetoric flowed through the mikes. Vaiko provided most of the flourishes, praising the LTTE for its military capabilities, and expressing his desire to see "the Tamil flag among those fluttering outside the United Nations building".

"Tamil Eelam will come. That's a certainty," he said. The meeting passed a resolution asking the Centre not to give any military assistance to Colombo, and not to help rebuild Palaly airstrip in Jaffna or provide any help that would "adversely affect Sri Lankan Tamils".

Vaiko even warned the Centre that if it failed to heed this call, the youth of Tamil Nadu "would not remain mere spectators". He pointed to other instances of Indian youth taking to arms, such as People's War, the Naxalite group in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Was the meeting a trial balloon by the LTTE to gauge the atmosphere for itself in Tamil Nadu? If so, it would have certainly derived encouragement from two developments that seemed to be a direct consequence of the pro-LTTE meeting.

One was the reluctance of New Delhi to openly blame the LTTE for its blatant ceasefire violations in the joint statement issued at the end of Mr. Rajapakse's visit. It said instead that "the President of Sri Lanka apprised the Prime Minister of India of recent attacks on Sri Lankan security forces and other ceasefire violations. The two leaders deplored violations of the ceasefire. Both sides emphasized the need for the strict observance of the ceasefire and immediate resumption of talks aimed at strengthening the ceasefire."

The UPA coalition could have sent out the message that constituents cannot dictate on an important issue of foreign policy with implications for national security but it chose not to, instead fudging the language of the joint statement.

The other significant fallout was that Chief Minister Jayalalithaa avoided meeting President Rajapakse, forcing him to cancel his visit to Chennai from his itinerary. That she allowed the meeting to go ahead was itself something of a surprise. The LTTE is a banned terrorist group in India since 1992. The Prevention of Terrorism Act has been repealed, but Jayalalithaa could have even invoked sections of the Indian Penal Code to prevent the meeting from taking place, had she so desired.

Not too long ago, she would have at least launched a verbal tirade against her political opponents for consorting with the LTTE. Jayalalithaa makes a show of her anti-LTTE credentials. Indeed, over the last few days, the State government has increased its vigilance of the Tamil Nadu coast in anticipation of the LTTE sending its cadres here in the guise of refugees.

Why wasn't there even a peep out of her about the pro-LTTE rhetoric at the meeting? The answer could well lie in the shape of possible alliances for the coming elections. As the political commentator Cho Ramaswamy noted at a public meeting last week, the DMK-led DPA may not be able to hold together for the elections. Seat-sharing is one issue that could pull it apart.

The other more subtle undercurrent is that Vaiko is bound to be a reluctant player in a project to pitchfork Stalin, the son of ageing DMK leader M. Karunanidhi, into the chief minister's chair. If Karunanidhi continues to project his son as his inheritor, there is a good chance this election may really turn out to be a contest between Jayalalithaa and Stalin.

Vaiko's future hinges on the DMK breaking up and a part of it attaching itself to him in a post-Karunanidhi scenario. He would rather work to defeat the DMK than help it win the election because cadres hesitate to leave a party when it is in power. The AIADMK, currently bereft of allies and arithmetically weak, is watching this with interest. Jayalalithaa's silence on the pro-LTTE activity in the state could be related to this. She would want to avoid taking any step that could foreclose emerging political opportunities.

The pro-LTTE noise in Tamil Nadu could increase if a full-fledged war breaks out in north-east Sri Lanka, and the trickle of refugees that has already started turns into a flood. It will hand Eelamist politicians a handy excuse for bringing it up in the run-up to the elections.

Why should Tamil Nadu parties make an issue of the war in Sri Lanka now when they did not through two Assembly elections held between 1995 and 2001, when the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE fought some of their fiercest battles?

The answer to that is President Chandrika Kumaratunga was perceived in India and in Tamil Nadu as a leader who was genuine and sincere about solving the conflict through political concessions to Tamils. That she ended up waging war instead was blamed on the LTTE.

President Rajapakse, elected with the help of the Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, does not have the same image of a liberal and progressive leader. It has not helped that he espouses a unitary state, widely seen as the primary cause of Sri Lanka's ethnic troubles from the time of its independence from the British in 1948.

It has dismayed committed anti-LTTE Sri Lanka watchers in India that President Rajapakse rejected the accepted wisdom that solving conflicts of this nature require governments to dilute powers at the centre and devolve to the regions.

Still, the LTTE is far from regaining popular support, even though it has political parties speaking for it. There is still widespread anger against the LTTE for the killing of Rajiv Gandhi. For people in Tamil Nadu, the assassination is not just "a tragic event that happened many years ago", as LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran famously described it in his 2002 press conference. For them, LTTE is still a four-letter word.

This is why from 1991, even the staunchest Eelamist politicians kept the Sri Lankan issue out of the election arena and may hesitate to bring it in even now if they think it is off-putting to voters. But if parties and politicians project pro-LTTE programmes after they are elected, the people would certainly be helpless to prevent them -- at least until the next elections.
(An investigation from a team of Chennai-based Indian reporters, especially conducted for The Sunday Times)

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