Tamil Nadu elections and Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem

Tuesday, 17 May 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Asian Tribune: As a one-time leading lady of Tamil cinema, theatrics would come naturally to Jayalalitha Jeyaram. An avowed opponent of the LTTE for many years, she did a volte face and adopted a soft stance on the Tigers and a tough one on Colombo during her long stay in opposition.

Not doing enough for Lankan Tamils was a good stick to beat her arch rival, Chief Minister Muttuvel Karunanidhi, with and she did it with customary gusto.

With the publication of the Darusman Report, Jayalalitha went into high gear again; she berated Karunanidhi (by now seriously beleaguered, with the 2G corruption scandal touching those in his innermost circle, including daughter M. Kanmozhi) on his inability to protect Lankan Tamils and declared that the Lankan President should be taken to The Hague to be tried for ‘war crimes’.

She fired a fresh volley at the Rajapaksa administration on the very day of her magnificent election triumph, once in an interview with Jaya TV (which she owns) and then at her first post-victory press conference.

The soon-to-be Chief Minister “called on the Indian Government to take measures against the Sri Lanka president for alleged war crimes and genocide of Tamils... Jayalalitha Jeyaram said that it is India’s responsibility to ensure a ‘dignified and honourable existence’ for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. ‘I will exert pressure on the central government, after I take over as the CM, to take action against Sri Lankan president before international court for genocide and war crimes. India should take the initiative for this,’ she said. If President Mahinda Rajapaksa fails to honour that, she said, India should also take other measures to pressurise Sri Lanka. ‘If Sri Lanka Government did not oblige to these requests, Indian Government has to impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka together with other countries,’ Jayalalitha added. The main reason for the suffering of Tamils in Sri Lanka, according to the newly elected CM, is the Sri Lanka Government. ‘As Tamils, it is our duty to ensure a good life for the Tamils in Sri Lanka,’ she said” (Interview with Jaya TV – 13 May 2011).

Season for verbiage

Post-victory, Jayalalitha’s main preoccupation will be the consolidation of her power; this would inevitably entail weakening her traditional rival, Karunanidhi (not to mention his hopeful and ambitious family). This is the standard tenor of Tamil Nadu politics; the winner usually accuses the loser of some crime or other and jails him/her.

A leading member of the victorious AIADMK has already vocalised (in an interview with the NDTV) the need to investigate the doings of the DMK in the last five years. Jayalalitha might use the Lankan issue in order to create and maintain popular support for the anti-Karunanidhi campaign she will indubitably launch.

Taking up the cause of Lankan Tamils would also enable her to depict herself as the real defender of Tamils and their interests. And as a Chief Minister in opposition to the Central Government, Jayalalitha would be ideally positioned to make high-octane dramatic statements, without worrying about either follow up deeds or adverse consequences; her job-description enables her to ‘talk the talk’ on Sri Lanka without having to ‘walk the walk’.

For example, she would be able to damn the Congress Government for being soft on Sri Lankan President and for failing to ensure the protection and the well being of Lankan Tamils, without actually having to do anything to correct either mistake. As she pointed out in the above interview, “I can act on this regard as the CM on a limited way, but this is an international issue. Therefore, the central government should take action to resolve this” (ibid).

So Sri Lanka may become an important issue in Tamil Nadu politics once again, as the new Chief Minister uses it to undermine the credibility and damage the image of her defeated predecessor, still further.

A comment made by an ‘analyst’ on Jaya TV during a discussion on election results indicates how the Lankan issue will be exploited by the New Chief Minister and her party members against their DMK opponents.

During the discussion, the anchor had categorised the DMK’s inability to help Lankan Tamils as a greater crime than even its alleged (massive) corruption and asked the analyst: “…stealing anything is all right. But our own brothers and sisters, the Lankan Tamils… why was the DMK so uninvolved?” Answered the analyst, “I’ll tell you why. Karunanidhi and his family have set up and supported several industries in Sri Lanka. Their main concern was that these should not be harmed” (Sify News – 13 May 2011).

The DMK leader and his family may thus be accused by the new AIADMK Government of being in cahoots with the Rajapaksas. In order to disprove these AIADMK charges of collusion with the Rajapaksa regime, the DMK may feel compelled to toughen its own stance on Sri Lanka.

Out of power, it can afford to rail to its heart’s content, about the plight of the Lankan Tamils, the iniquities of the Rajapaksas and the inability of the new Chief Minister to make a difference, without having to bother about follow-up deeds or adverse implications. This in turn will make it harder for Delhi to cut Mahinda Rajapaksa any slack, for fear of losing all influence in the key southern state (the Congress won only five seats in Tamil Nadu state assembly this election).

If Sri Lanka becomes a livewire in Tamil Nadu politics, again, it will cause certain subsidiary-issues to return to the foreground, such as the ‘conflict’ between the Lankan Navy and Tamil Nadu fishermen. This may propel Delhi and Colombo, once again, on to a confrontational course.

Since Jayalalitha is unlikely to be able to alleviate the economic woes of her people and since she and her cronies are likely to engage in the same kind of financial shenanigans as their defeated rivals, international issues such as the crimes of the Rajapaksas and the plight of Lankan Tamils will have a particular attraction to the new Chief Minister. So long as the Congress Party is in power in Delhi and so long as the Congress-DMK alliance endures, the Lankan issue can represent a win-win scenario for Jayalalitha.

Negotiations with the TNA

A top-level Indian team was expected in Colombo last week, but for some unknown reason that visit did not materialise. The Indians would naturally want to discuss the situation created by the Darusman Report with the Rajapaksa administration and to use it to propel the regime to honour its repeated promises to devolve power to the Tamils. But the most recent development in the negotiations between the Rajapaksa administration and the TNA demonstrates (for the umpteenth time) that the Ruling Family has no intention of sharing power with anyone, let alone the minorities.

According to media reports, the regime had offered the TNA a senate in lieu of devolution, an offer which the TNA had, naturally, declined. “The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has refused to accept the Government’s proposal to establish a Senate as a substitute for a power devolution arrangement….. The Government had laid out two options for the establishment of the Senate with powers to enact or amend legislation. One... was for the provincial councils to elect 75 members, three each from the 25 districts with the President nominating 15 members while the other option was for people to elect 63 members – seven from each province... with the President nominating 17 members. It is learnt the TNA had opposed this proposal on the grounds that it did not contain any mechanism to ensure the rights of the minority communities…..” (Daily Mirror – 14 May 2011).

There is nothing new or surprising in the regime’s proposal. The idea of a second chamber as the political solution to the ethnic problem has been floated by Rajapaksa acolytes previously. It is an idea with no merit since it will neither democratise nor devolve; its only real result would be to impose another (very expensive) white elephant on an already financially-overburdened country.

The negotiations between the regime and the TNA will go nowhere; given the nature of the Rajapaksa project, they have nowhere to go. The Rajapaksas want to concentrate all powers in their hands. That, for instance, is why they stymied the democratising 17th Amendment and replaced it with the extremely anti-democratic 18th Amendment. The Ruling Family will not devolve power. But it will pretend to do so.

In the new conjuncture created by the Darusman Report, the regime needs the negotiations with the TNA, as a means of warding off Indian and Western pressure. So the negotiations will drag on, the same way the APRC process did. Partly for this reason and partly to muddy the waters still further, the Rajapaksas have brought their Tamil allies into the negotiating process.

Once upon a time, parties like the EPDP occupied the critically important middle ground between the Tigers and Colombo. Today that middle ground has almost disappeared, under the twin onslaughts of the Tigers and the Rajapaksas; in consequence parties like the EPDP have become nothing more than ciphers of the Ruling Family. Whatever value the anti-Tiger Tamils had in Rajapaksa eyes died with Vellupillai Prabhakaran two years ago, on the shores of the Nandikadal lagoon. Now their only purpose is to provide the regime with protective cover, whenever Indian or Western pressure intensifies.

The negotiations with the TNA will thus continue, since this is the only fig leaf available to the Rajapaksas in the international arena: “Sources said that both India and the US were closely following the talks, with the TNA heavily dependent on their support to keep the ongoing talks on track… Although some feared that former Premier Ratnasiri Wickremanayake quitting the Government delegation, in protest against the TNA declaring its support for the controversial ‘Darusman report,’ would scuttle the talks, the Government moved quickly to reassure the TNA and the international community negotiations were on track. Sources said that the dispute over the war crimes report commissioned by UNSG Ban Ki-Moon shouldn’t jeopardise post-war deliberations. In fact, a consensus between the Government and the TNA could help Sri Lanka to address some of the key concerns raised by a section of the international community pushing for an international mechanism to investigate alleged war crimes at the behest of the Tamil Diaspora” (ibid).

Translated into simple English, ‘ongoing negotiations with the TNA’ will be used to deflect international pressure stemming from the Darusman Report. The ‘we are talking to the TNA’ card will be used when the high level Indian delegation turns up in Colombo, probably next week.

In the meantime, the regime is moving rapidly to change the ground realities in the north. For instance, new army camps are being set up in the north using pre-fabricated buildings from China, bought with Indian money.

That says all that needs to be said about the bona fides of the Rajapaksas.