ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday November 18, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 25
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The Indian hand

Forty years ago, the Indian economy was stuck in the mud wedded to its socialist ideologies. The commanding heights of the economy were centralised in the hands of the State. At that time, the Indian currency vis-a-vis the SL rupee was 2 Indian rupees to 1 SL rupee. Then at a time it was on par. Now the roles are reversed.

Last Sunday, Sri Lankans who once sniggered at the plight of the long suffering Indians listened with rapt attention as India's Finance Minister made the profound statement that "growth is the antidote to poverty". What happened in those 40 years?

In 1977, Sri Lanka was well on the road to economic growth not hitherto witnessed in South Asia, with the World Bank even warning the country of "overheating", at the pace we were rapidly developing. And then, came the crash. The separatist insurgency. Aided and abetted by the Government of India (covertly) and the State Government of Tamil Nadu (overtly), Tamil armed militancy was nurtured and unleashed to destabilize the pro-west pro-growth economy in its southern neighbour. The rest is history.

At that time, up-and-coming politicians, the likes of Minister Chidambaram hitched their political stars to pan-Tamilian movements and were seen carrying placards in Chennai in support of the LTTE.

After the assassination of one of their own Prime Ministers, this sympathy turned to antipathy. The freedom fighters of yesterday became the terrorists of today. Now, however, they have veered back to the middle-of-the-road. Neither this, nor that. Unsure whether to condemn terrorism or run the risk of being labelled traitors. The irony was not lost when his largely Sri Lankan audience heard Minister Chidambaram say, as the keynote speaker at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture, that Sri Lanka's "highest defence expenditure per capita" was the single biggest challenge for the country.

He also made a pitch for geographic, ethnic, linguistic 'divisions' to be recognised in the creation of political institutions, a euphemism for suggesting that the Tamils in the North and East of Sri Lanka be given regional autonomy. The fact that — unlike in Sri Lanka today — when all and sundry give their opinions on foreign policy, it would be most unlike the Harvard educated lawyer in Minister Chidambaram not to have run his speech past, and got the nod of approval from the South Block in New Delhi. So, we can take it that this is official Indian policy towards Sri Lanka. It was only reconfirmed when he reiterated the bland noncommittal policy of New Delhi on Sri Lanka's current plight with terrorism saying that "peace must be forged at the negotiating table and the peace agreement must win a vote of confidence from the people".

Pressed at question time how the recalcitrant LTTE could ever be brought to the negotiating table, he parried, conceded that it was "difficult", and fell back on quoting the settlement of the Northern Irish problem. Perhaps, he couldn't quote the manner in which the Golden Temple at Amritsar issue was settled.

So, there was nothing new Minister Chidambaram really said in Colombo last week, but he did make some valid points about the need for South Asian unity. After all, the title of his lecture, his own choice, was 'Growth Prospects in South Asia; Challenges and Opportunities'. Sri Lanka had its opportunities and now has its challenges.

India has almost dumped South Asia, impatient with its bleak prospects and is forging new ties with the US, the EU and the ASEAN. The visiting minister complained about the inability to forge regional co-operation through trade within South Asia and spoke of "connectivity". Nice words, but nary a word about India's deeds. Take the Sethusamudram Canal Project where India took a unilateral decision on "connectivity", and to hell with its impact on Sri Lanka.

Shortly after Chidambaram spoke in Colombo came the news that pro-LTTE politicians in Tamil Nadu had been arrested for trying to protest the killing of the LTTE's Political Wing leader. It was a contradiction given that the Chief Minister of that state himself had written a eulogy in verse praising the political head of an organisation banned in his own country. Clearly, Mr. Chidambaram was trying to have the best of both worlds, and falling between the two. The need for Sri Lanka is to keep talking with India. This Government has opted to take the course of tilting towards staunch friends Pakistan and China if India plays truant.

Former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar spoke on this very subject at a Memorial Lecture he delivered in 1996 in New Delhi — the Krishna Menon Lecture. This is what he said: "To construct a meaningful regionalism in South Asia, though, we have no other option but to test national perceptions against each other in free, frank and accommodating discussions, which is at all times informed by a discernible desire to find common ground". Given the inescapable contradictions and compulsions of South Asian member states, this seems good counsel.

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