|Much ado about nothing?
It was a different kind of war, a war of words or ‘sabre
rattling,’ as they call it in diplomatic circles, but
nevertheless a war it was.
The protagonists were Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary,
Presidential sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and India’s National
Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and the war was fought only
through the familiar medium of newspaper interviews.
Narayanan fired the first salvo, saying that Sri Lanka may win
the battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
but would lose the “war” because the government did not have the
Tamil population “on its side.”
Narayanan obviously knew that his words would not go down well
in Colombo because he prefaced his remarks by saying, “I know
the Sri Lankan Government will be unhappy at this advice.”
The Indian National Security Advisor went on to predict that
even if Colombo was successful in prosecuting the war, there
could be an Iraq-like situation, with the LTTE retaining the
capability of staging terror strikes.
The gist of his argument was that Colombo was putting all its
eggs in the basket of war and counting them even before they
were hatched – and not doing enough to devolve powers to the
minority Tamil community.
The senior diplomat that he is, Narayanan knew well that even if
these sentiments were what New Delhi wanted to convey to
Colombo, the usual ‘procedure’ was to camouflage them in
diplomatic wording so that it appeared soothing, at least on
But not so this time: the intent was to add insult to injury. So
much so that, some were even speculating that this is not what
India was saying; it was only Narayanan letting off steam after
being forced to take a taxi and then walk back to his hotel
after the recently concluded SAARC Summit in Colombo. But, as
those versed in diplomacy will know, that is wishful thinking.
It didn’t take long for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to respond. The
military could take Kilinochchi by the end of the year,
Rajapaksa said, but added that Colombo may have failed to
convince the world of its sincerity in dealing with the ethnic
issue. Again, if the diplomatic veneer is stripped off, this
could be implied as saying that Narayanan was talking through
But Rajapaksa, in a different interview, qualified that by
stating he indeed agreed with what Narayanan said and that Sri
Lanka also believed in a political solution to the ethnic issue.
But the rub was in the caveat to that – terrorism must be dealt
with military means and nothing else.
Is this a new low in Indo-Lanka relations or is it much ado
about nothing because everybody seems to be stating the obvious?
Indo-Lanka relations have not been the best in recent times,
especially since President Mahinda Rajapaksa took office.
President Rajapaksa is seen as a hawk with a military agenda on
the ethnic issue and his unwavering commitment to offensives in
the north has done nothing to soothe Manmohan Singh or New
This is interesting because Rajapaksa, during his presidential
election campaign, mooted the idea of India as an intermediary
in dealings with the LTTE rather than Norway. New Delhi would
have been having great expectations that they could be dabbling
in Sri Lanka’s conflict once more, just like they did 25 years
ago during the J.R. Jayewardene presidency.
But even if President Rajapaksa wanted India to take the
initiative, he wanted them to do so on his terms and not merely
for New Delhi to call the shots, with Colombo dancing to its
tune. The mandarins in the South Block were unhappy and
relations between Colombo and Delhi slowly but steadily
Spare a thought for Manmohan Singh, though. His is a shaky
coalition – just as Rajapaksa’s is – but he doesn’t have the
luxury of executive powers that President Rajapaksa is blessed
Only recently, he scraped through in a motion of no confidence
against his government. Therefore, he has to factor in the real
politik of the numerically significant Tamil Nadu vote in
deciding on what he says and does about Sri Lanka’s ethnic
Given that it is unthinkable that National Security Advisor
Narayanan spoke his own mind without New Delhi’s sanction, his
comments were the harshest words yet delivered from India. The
message was loud and clear: you are not doing enough to devolve
power to the minorities and we are not happy about it.
What New Delhi has not said is what it plans doing about what it
perceives to be Colombo’s militaristic policy towards the ethnic
issue. Perhaps it hopes that its show of anger will prompt Sri
Lanka to soften its stand.
If that is what was expected, the Defence Secretary has done
just the opposite. The march to Kilinochchi will continue, was
Colombo’s response. In real terms what it means is that Colombo
simply does not care what New Delhi believes in; it will fight
this war in the only way it sees fit.
If there is a moral in this diplomatic fisticuff for Colombo, it
would be for Sri Lanka to disregard New Delhi’s attitude in
saying what it says and to also forget why it is saying so but
to focus solely on what is being said.
If it is simplified to mean that minority Tamils in Sri Lanka
have yet to place their faith in the Rajapaksa government,
therein lies a lesson. It is a factor that the government will
have to consider in implementing any solution – military,
political or otherwise – for the ethnic issue. And that is true,
whether or not M.K. Narayanan is talking through his hat.