Modi’s Play on Sri Lanka — Factors of influence

modiBy Kumaravadivel Guruparan.                                              

Like any other observer of international relations and politics who wishes to be taken seriously, I must at the outset post the disclaimer that it will be too early to say anything concrete as to what the impact of regime change in India would be on Sri Lanka. Both the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil National Alliance are eager to capture the attention of Mr. Modi, but both I suspect, are equally apprehensive as to what he might or might not do. Here I try to map out the major factors that might influence Modi’s approach to Sri Lanka.
Modi’s Hindutva and Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhisisation

Modi’s political ideology has much in commonality with Rajapaksa’s. Modi has a Hindutva vision for imagining India as a ‘One (Hindu) Nation – One State’. For example BJP’s manifesto reiterates their commitment to abolishing community specific personal laws and to enact a Hindu dominated Uniform Civil Code. They also want to abolish the asymmetrical powers that Jammu & Kashmir enjoy under the present constitution which Kashmiris anyway think is grossly inadequate. Rajapaksa equally believes in a ‘One (Sinhala-Buddhist) Nation – One State’ policy for Sri Lanka. A matter of particular concern to Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka also might be that both Modi and Rajapaksa have anti-Muslim politics in them. In short, both have similar ideological baggage. Rajapaksa is hoping that Modi will show ‘appreciation’ for his politics. Similarly a small fraction of the Tamils are hoping Modi can be convinced that Rajapaksa’s anti-Tamil policy by extension is also anti-Hindu.
Modi’ reaction to Rajapaksa’s ‘China card’

My assessment is that political ideology will not play much of a role in deciding Modi’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka. The critical factor will be Modi’s policy towards US and China. If Modi wants to take India even closer to the US and be a part of the US ‘Pivot to Asia’ project then there is reason for Rajapaksa to be worried.

Rajapaksa has been playing the ‘China card’ at the Congress Government quite successfully. India’s foreign policy bureaucracy and pundits fell victim to this very clever ploy. This ‘China card waving strategy’ involved Rajapaksa threatening the previous Indian Government with even more closer alignment with China if India blocks his agenda. So a policy of appeasement with Rajapaksa with gentle pushes –like for example insisting on the holding of the Northern Provincial Council elections — has been the policy of the Congress Government.
If Modi’s assessment is that this has not worked well for India and if indeed he is going to align himself more closely with the US it is quite possible that he might not tolerate Rajapaksa’s ‘China card’ waving strategy.

Hardeep Singh Puri, formerly India’s UN Permanent Representative, now retired and with the BJP, in a piece he wrote for The Hindu  after his retirement , while dismissing ‘exaggerated projections of Chinese inroads and influence’, asserted that ‘they are a bogey which many of our smaller neighbours periodically try on us’. Puri supported India’s vote in favour of the 2012 and 2013 UNHRC resolutions but also expressed support for its abstention in the 2014 vote . He however points out in his the Hindu piece that India not supporting country-specific resolutions at the UNHRC is both factually wrong and absurd and that these decisions are based on Indian National Interest. Regarding accountability his position is that its in India’s national interest that there is one: Puri noted, “To dismiss popular sentiment in Tamil Nadu as the machinations of politicians is both a misreading of the situation and a recipe for disaster. Why should Sri Lanka not be held to account for not respecting understandings given bilaterally to India, such as those of April-May 2009?” Puri in the Hindu piece similar to the Congress Government’s policy on the issue insists that a political solution remains in the implementation of the 13th amendment, a position that Tamils reject. But of late in an interview with Rajya Sabha TV, he opined that the 13th Amendment is “too little too late”  . Hardeep Singh Puri’s role in the Modi Government is unknown. But his position may provide pointers.

Modi’s China policy is far from clear. It appears that China will expect India under Modi to maintain a ‘strategic independence’ from the US . China also probably thinks that given the ‘practical businessman’ that Modi is and given Chinese investments in Gujarat that he will not be hostile to China, but China’s expansionist plans for example in the South China Sea will definitely be a bother for Modi .
South Block’s conservatism

The main issue for Modi will be as to whether the Indian Foreign Bureaucracy – the men and women occupying South Block – are going to let any change happen. Indian Foreign Policy’s remarkably reactionary character is attributable to its conservative bureaucrats. The Southern Block’s mantra is ‘incrementalist pragmatism’. The truth is the previous Congress Government left Foreign Policy largely to its bureaucrats. One has to wait and see as to whether there will be more involvement from the political class in Foreign Policy direction-setting in the Modi Government.

Early indications are that there will not be much of a change. Amit Shah, Modi’s right hand man and one of BJP’s General Secretaries, in a post-election interview with NDTV noted that there will be a continuation of previous policies in the foreign policy domain. It is also important to remember the then Lok Sabha Opposition Leader, Sushma Swaraj’s comments in Colombo, after she led a parliamentary delegation there in 2012, that BJP is in agreement with the Congress as to its policies with regard to Sri Lanka. The official press release by Sushma Swaraj following the visit also indicates BJP’s support for Congress’s ‘13+’ solution for the Tamils . A minor point to keep in mind is that Subramainan Swamy, a close friend of Rajapaksa is as of recently, a BJP member. In complete contrast, of interest might also be former Foreign Minister Yaswant Sinha’s remark in April 2013 that ‘Tamil Ealam is a distinct possibility’.
The Tamil Nadu Factor

Despite ADMK’s (led by Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s) stunning victory in Tamil Nadu (she won 37 out of the 39 seats), given the overwhelming electoral wave in favour of Modi in the Hindi heartland, the significance of Jayalalitha’s victory pales given that Modi doesn’t need her support to form the Government. But both are politically close and one will have to wait and see how much Jayalalitha can influence Modi’s position on Sri Lanka.

People may doubt the electoral significance of the Ealam Tamil issue on Tamilnadu, given inter alia Vaiko (V. Gopalaswamy)’s defeat, but no one can deny that the Ealam Tamil issue was one of the most hotly debated issues in Tamil Nadu during the last few elections. Many social movements – largely student and youth based – like the ‘May 17 Movement’ have mobilized people around the Tamil issue and this has put immense pressure on both the ADMK and the DMK.

Arguably the Tamil Nadu Assembly Resolution of March 2013 – calling for a referendum on a political solution among Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Diaspora as well as for an international inquiry into allegations of genocide and war crimes – was ADMK’s response to the pressure generated by this mobilization.

I suspect that the politics of the Ealam Tamil issue in Tamil Nadu and its impact on the Indian Foreign Policy will depend quite a lot on the success of the mobilization of these mass based social movements.

Kumaravadivel Guruparan is a lawyer and academic from Jaffna, currently on study leave from the University of Jaffna. He is also with the Tamil Civil Society Forum.

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