Babus in the Indian Foreign Ministry and also the Home Ministry would do well to give a good reading of the statement tweeted on November 19 by Namal, the influential son of Mahinda Rajapaksa. In fact, study it deeply and look for connotations between the lines. They are not too deeply hidden in the two-page document scripted deliberately in Tamil.
The statement was addressed to the politicians in Tamil Nadu, telling them they have been all along making sensational statements in the media to exacerbate the relations between the two nations and their people, only to serve their own selfish-opportunistic ends and have done precious little to truly help the Tamils in Sri Lanka. At least now, they should “function with responsibility to help our people live their future in peace and prosperity”.
Namal was pretty hard in hitting out at these Tamil politicians; in fact, even naming the MDMK chief Vaiko, VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan, PMK founder Dr S Ramadoss and Tamil National Alliance leader Pazha Nedumaran, as being prominent in this group. He accused them of “doing nothing for our people, except using them as pawns” to further their own selfish agenda and causing disaffection and hatred among “our people”— obviously meaning the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.
He went on to recall the visit to Sri Lanka of a Parliamentary delegation on behalf the DMK after the (Eelam) war ended in 2009. The team had included Thirumavalavan who “heard us in a friendly manner and understood our side of the story”. “So, it shocks us looking at his opportunistic statement issued now”, said Namal, reminding TN politicians it’s time now they shed their “irresponsible and provocative” conduct of issuing hostile statements and, instead, contribute their mite to better the lives of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. This is ‘kaalathin-kattaayam’ (compulsions of time), he told them, “politely, lovingly and respectfully”.
But why bother so much about this statement from Namal Rajapaksa in a tiny treatise on what ails Indo-Lanka relations? Well, this favourite progeny of the Island’s strongman is being groomed to take over from dad in some years; so, it’s no exaggeration to say the statement was thoroughly examined by Mahinda both in its content and the tone before release.
The Rajapaksas are well aware that Namal’s anger would be picked up by the rulers in Delhi as well and the latter would understand that notwithstanding the fact that it erupted in response to the hostile statements from the named TN politicians, it also pointed to a serious remedy to one of the major ‘irritants’ in the soured relations between the First Family of Sri Lanka and the Government of India.
Rajapaksa Jr was not just reminding the TN politicians about ‘this kaalathin-kattaayam’, he was addressing a larger audience in India, particularly in its ruling echelons, about the new compulsions created by his uncle Gotabaya’s victory in the Presidential poll and dad’s swearing-in as the Interim Prime Minister. The family has cut out, in precise political dimensions, not just the future of its own members but that of the island nation.
The family is aware that not many in the North and the East had voted for ‘Gota’ on November 16. And that while it was essential for a contestant to cross the 50 per cent vote share to be declared the winner, he got 52.25 per cent while main rival Sajith Premadasa managed just 43.8 per cent share of votes polled. And that Sajith had the backing of India, which is why the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) representing most of the Tamil people in Sri Lankan Parliament, announced support for Sajith while reiterating the charge that Gotabaya had captained, as the then Defence Secretary, the ‘genocide’ of Tamil civilians to end the Eelam War (May 2009).
The Muslims dominating the Eastern Province too have expressed fears that the attacks on them by Buddhist monks and other extremist elements would return if the Rajapaksas come to power.
The first statement made by both Mahinda and Gotabaya on winning the elections was to assure all the people that they would get equal opportunities irrespective of their community and region. “Our future government, including the President, will demonstrate transparency and goodwill in every act”, promised Namal in the midst of his anger at TN politicos. And Gotabaya stressed that he’s the President of Sri Lanka and not just of the Sinhala people. Prudent diplomacy would allow the Family to prove sincerity vis-à-vis those assurances of peace and development.
India has made the right move in this direction when its foreign minister Dr S. Jaishankar called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his first day in office after being sworn in on November 18. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had telephoned him the previous day, almost as soon as the poll results were announced, to congratulate and also invite him to Delhi on what could be his first foreign trip as President. The invitation has been accepted and the Sri Lankan President would visit the Indian Capital on November 29, according to Jaishankar, who also met Mahinda and his son Namal on this trip. And yes, protests have also erupted in Tamil Nadu with the pro-LTTE parties and leaders demanding that PM Modi should refrain from hosting Gotabaya.
Referring to his meeting with the Indian Foreign Minister, Mahinda tweeted saying that “strengthening of the already existing bilateral relations between our two nations was discussed”. The Rajapaksas have always maintained that India is a brother up north and the mutual relations are tied tight with the umbilical cord, while China and Pakistan are close friends.
That brings us back to the kaalathin-kattaayam; the urgent need to repair the relations with Colombo and its rulers, the Rajapaksas. This is necessary to strengthen collaborations in dealing with not only regional economic progress and marine defence, but also the stalking menace of Islamist terror. One must only check with the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to know the seriousness of this issue — India had cautioned Colombo well in advance that terror strikes would happen during the Easter but the warning went unheeded and more than 250 people perished in suicide bombings. The NIA has discovered the deadly links between terror modules in Sri Lanka and South India. Coming to the issue of regional security interests, India would have to push the Rajapaksas to revisit the agreements with China in the areas of defence and infrastructure investments. That’s easier said than done as international agreements are pretty hard to scratch out.
In an interview with (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa early 2010, about a year after the Eelam war ended, this writer pointed to the large presence of the Chinese in the infra project sites and their families shopping in the Colombo malls, with babies in prams. “Mr President, we in India have a problem with you. You are close to the Chinese”, I remember telling him.
Pat came the reply. “Ah, you know every project I gave the Chinese, I first offered to India. You guys did not take it. I must develop my country, no? So, I had to go the Chinese…”
The babus of Delhi only had a calculator sitting on their desks to add up the figures behind each Lankan project and say, “OMG, that’s way beyond us”. The Chinese had calculators too but they also had a centralised decision-making system controlled by their President, which cleared proposals and projects real quick. And it’s said they also had limitless access to grease funds.
These, mainly, are the issues that India must keep in mind while preparing the banquet speeches during the Gotabaya visit. For the Chinese, Sri Lanka is just a small island that’s become important on its String of Pearls. For India, the little island has huge strategic importance in multiple areas, including regional security and combating terror, not to forget the Tamil question.
(The writer is Executive Editor, Deccan Chronicle)