Modi's zero-sum game: Inviting Sri Lanka, turning away Jaya, Tamils

So, Narendra Modi’s much awaited swearing in is going to be a bitter experience for Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and the BJP’s allies in the state, thanks to the possible presence of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa has accepted the invitation to attend the swearing in and the BJP cannot now withdraw the invitation. At the same time, Jayalalithaa and the Tamil parties can hardly share a stage with Rajapaksa against whom whey have been seeking international action. So it’s almost certain that neither she nor any of the friends of the BJP in the state such as Vaiko or Vijayakanth will attend the fairytale ceremony.

Narendra Modi and Jayalalithaa in this file photo. PTI

Narendra Modi and Jayalalithaa in this file photo. PTI

Jayalalithaa articulated the condition of the Tamil parities the best when she said that the invitation to the Sri Lankan president was like "rubbing salt into the wounds of the already deeply injured Tamil psyche… it would have been better if the ill-advised move had been avoided.” Saying the sentiments of the Tamil people towards the Sri Lankan regime is well known, she said a new government in Delhi in “no way alters the existing strained relations between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.” She also recalled the resolutions that the state assembly has passed against the island nation.

It’s not clear if the the BJP had taken into account the sentiments of Tamil Nadu, particularly that of Jayalalithaa and its allies such as MDMK before sending a blanket invitation to all the South Asian heads of state. Had there been some thought accorded to the geo-political sensitivity of the issue, this could have been avoided because it would straightaway create a bad precedent in the centre’s relations with Tamil Nadu vis-a-vis the Sri Lankan issue even if they try to be careful in future.

Jayalalithaa has been steadfast in her stand against the Rajapaska regime and had made the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils her poll-plank since the 2009 Parliament elections. She repeated it in the 2011 assembly elections, in which she secured a landslide majority, and continued her stated position in the latest elections as well. The state assembly has passed resolutions asking for an economic blockade against the island nation as well as asking India to vote against it at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Her unwavering position also saw her asking Delhi not to train Sri Lankan army personnel in Tamil Nadu.

Delhi has been rather dubious in its handling of the issue. Twice it voted against Sri Lanka, that too after keeping its options open till the last minute, at the UNHRC. At the last resolution, it abstained, citing principles of international relations. Prior to that, when it voted against Sri Lanka in a US-sponsored resolution, India did intervene to soften its language. Tamil Nadu was upset and had conveyed its protest against India’s stand and the state’s students had taken to the streets asking for a stronger position by New Delhi against the island nation.

Besides India’s ambivalent stand against Sri Lanka in international forums such as the UNHRC, another action that peeved Tamil Nadu, particularly Jayalalithaa, has been the training of Sri Lankan army personnel in Tamil Nadu. She had asked the Centre not to allow the visit of Sri Lankan personnel into her state without informing her government. Sri Lankan Army personnel had to be moved out of the state on her insistence.

In September 2012, she didn’t allow Sri Lankan students to play a friendly football match in Chennai for which Delhi had granted permission. She not only packed the students off, but also told the Centre, “The decision of the Indian government has humiliated the people of Tamil Nadu and I condemn the centre for this.” In February 2013, her government didn’t allow Sri Lankan athletes to set foot on Tamil Nadu soil.

Although Tamil Nadu has been stern in its position that Sri Lanka be declared a hostile nation and the war crimes be investigated by an international panel, the turning point was the emergence of disturbing images of Prabhakaran’s son, who was apparently captured and killed at point blank range. As soon as the images became public, Jayalalithaa had said it was a “war crime of grave nature” and was unforgivable. “All those guilty of war crimes should face the International Court of Justice,” she had said asking the Centre to work with the US and others at the UNHRC.

It will be very interesting to see how the BJP government wriggles out of this unpleasant situation. The attendance of Rajapaksa might change the complexion of an otherwise good relationship between the new government and Jayalalithaa. Given the emotions involved, it’s very hard to speculate how it would pan out.

Updated Date: May 23, 2014 12:22 PM

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