India — the ‘biggest democracy on planet Earth’ is now voting to elect a new Government. There is no hint of vote rigging. There is no abuse of State machinery, and even if there was, a truly independent Elections Commission with ‘teeth’ to prosecute the high and mighty can impose strictures. These are elections where [...]


India: Vibrant democracy, but no Pancha Seela


India — the ‘biggest democracy on planet Earth’ is now voting to elect a new Government. There is no hint of vote rigging. There is no abuse of State machinery, and even if there was, a truly independent Elections Commission with ‘teeth’ to prosecute the high and mighty can impose strictures. These are elections where the Elections Commission is above board and suspicion and the chief does not go missing for hours on polling day only to surface later and complain that he was under “intense pressure” on that day. These are elections that are largely free and fair and the verdict is accepted without question by both victor and vanquished.
The polls have begun and from all indications, there is an anti-incumbency trend. The ruling Congress Party that turned the tables to win in 2004 and was re-elected in 2009 due to its successes in transforming India’s economy from dormancy to vibrancy, has, it seems, been unable to keep up the momentum nor check reeking corruption in its ranks.

Elections are not the be all and end all of democracy. When we hear local voices give the number of elections held in this country, fraught as they are with abuses, to illustrate the existence of a functioning democracy, it must be met with a caustic snigger. India has all the other qualities required for a democracy — apart from free elections: It has an independent Elections Commission; an independent Judiciary; a free meda; an upright Public Service; an unshackled Police Service; an efficient merit-based Foreign Service; and it has a Right to Information law for the citizenry. It is by no means a Utopia, but it’s a working democracy.

In marked contrast one has to take each of these arms of the State and cross-check with the status in this country. The deficiency is striking. In 2001, with the implementation of the 17th Amendment, there was a shot of oxygen pumped into the body-politic of Sri Lanka, only for it to be taken away in one swift blow through the 18th Amendment.

One can only marvel and watch with some envy as millions upon millions of Indian citizens trek to the polling stations spread out throughout the sub-continent to vote in their next Prime Minister. But, democracy as is practised in India today has its drawbacks as well and the relevance it has for Sri Lanka and its neighbours is in relation to its foreign policy.

Independent India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru fashioned that country’s foreign policy in the early years. A towering political figure in his time, he enunciated the Pancha Seela Doctrine of (1) peaceful co-existence, (2) non-aggression, (3) equality and mutual assistance, (4) mutual respect for territorial integrity and (5) non-intervention, which stood as the benchmark of India’s foreign policy for many years. The Congress Party leadership that followed in his footsteps for decades faithfully maintained that doctrine. The Indo-Lanka Agreement on Repatriation was an example of the good faith that existed.

Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, in the early years of her tenure embraced the same spirit classically displayed in the manner in which the Katchchativu issue was resolved. There was a certain benevolence shown and an acceptance of stark ex-facie facts, and it was generously reciprocated within Sri Lanka by a genuine affection for India and its people. When China crossed swords with India in 1962, all of Sri Lanka sided with India.

The post-1977 era changed everything. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs no longer had exclusive rights over India’s foreign policy. Other Ministries like Trade and Defence took their seat as co-drivers in the bus. India’s spy agency, RAW was at work, covertly and overtly destabilising neighbouring countries — Pakistan (East and West), Nepal and Sri Lanka. It began by bribing local politicians, then by arming clandestine guerrilla groups.

Then came what is commonly known as India’s ‘Coalition Compulsions’ in the foreign policy equation. With it changed the entire complexion of India’s modern-day foreign policy. Today, India’s foreign policy can be judged by the fact that the country is at odds with its entire neighbourhood. The enmity is bitter. In traditional rivals Pakistan, India has the state of Jammu and Kashmir to contend with. More so where Bangladesh is concerned where the state of West Bengal has a say, and where Sri Lanka is concerned, where the state of Tamil Nadu dictates terms to New Delhi.

On April 24, Tamil Nadu will go to the polls to choose its 39 MPs to Parliament in New Delhi. The AIADMK led by the state’s Chief Minister is the hot favourite to win more seats; the issue being whether the ultimate winner of the national polls will have sufficient seats to avoid “Coalition Compulsions’ or be beholden to the states like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Jammu and Kashmir.

Not that the Tamil Nadu state’s Sri Lanka policy is expected to see a change in fortunes. All the parties in the state have to keep the ‘Sri Lanka issue’ alive and kicking to bolster their vote bank. The issue in the current campaign insofar as Sri Lanka is concerned is only as to the degree of who has done less for the “suffering Tamils in Sri Lanka” and who is more pro-Eelam (in Sri Lanka). Their hypocrisy is best exposed though when they protect “their Tamils” over the “suffering Tamils of Sri Lanka” — with the unresolved poaching issue in the Palk Strait waters.

It is Sri Lanka’s great mistake not to reach out to the leaders of that Indian state, opting to deal with the Central Government in New Delhi instead when New Delhi is subject to ‘Coalition Compulsions’ to stay in power. The best thing for Sri Lanka would be a keener and closer contest in Tamil Nadu’s election next week where no party gets a landslide enabling the new Prime Minister in New Delhi get a strong Government without the need for ‘Coalition Compulsions’. The favourite to win– Prime Ministerial candidate from the opposition BJP — has also asked for a strong Government that does not have to cater to the whims and fancies of any of the parties in Tamil Nadu. But he too seems swayed by the vote factor and says it is he who can save the Tamil Nadu fishermen from the Sri Lanka Navy; nary a word that they are fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters.

So, there seems to be no likelihood of a positive change in India’s Sri Lanka policy with a new dispensation in New Delhi. Therefore, an opportunity will go abegging to mend its fences with Sri Lanka and revert to the status-quo that prevailed, once upon a time.

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