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Editorial


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 paper.
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 his hat.

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 Delhi.

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 deteriorated thereon.

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 with.
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 issue.
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.

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