Will Chidambaram’s bold Sri Lanka move work for the Congress?

“PM will visit Jaffna, meet Tamil leader”

“Only Congress can take care of Sri Lankan Tamils”

“We won’t rest until Tamils secure their rights”

“Sri Lanka must punish human rights violators”

These are some of the media headlines attributed to Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram over the last fortnight. For a national party, which preferred south Asian geopolitics to the unanimous sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu for a long while, this is a huge departure.

But why?

P Chidambaram. PTI

P Chidambaram. PTI

Because Lok Sabha elections are around the corner and none of the political parties in the state want to go wrong on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, which they think will have a bearing on voter sentiments.

For a few years now, the national leadership of the Congress as well as the UPA government have been clearly ambivalent on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. While the state — its political parties, civil society and rights groups, and the government itself — unanimously wanted India to take an unequivocal stand against the island nation, the Centre was deceptive.

During and after the 2009 war, Sri Lanka had sent out periodic signals that New Delhi had been kept in the loop, while India kept repeating its standard line on 13th Amendment and equal rights for Tamils. Despite international outcry endorsed by the UN, it failed to stop the war when thousands of Tamil civilians were allegedly killed in shelling and bombing; it failed to condemn the Sri Lankan authorities for its alleged war crimes and rights violations; and it even failed to take a definitive stand on the US-sponsored anti-Colombo resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. The government even continued to train Sri Lanka military personnel in India, including in Tamil Nadu.

But, in the last couple of months there is a discernible difference — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was held back from attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) followed by Chidambaram's affirmative statements. In fact, the UPA government never spoke in such unequivocal terms on the issue, even after the state government passed two resolutions in the state assembly and chief minister Jayalalithaa wrote strongly-worded letters to the prime minister.

This is where the fear of people’s verdict plays a sparkling role in Indian democracy.

No more supercilious lectures by Salman Khurshid or effete statements by Manmohan Singh. It’s time for plain-speak and Chidambaram seems to have to taken over the responsibility himself because the party has to face the people in Tamil Nadu. And he himself has to get elected. Its most probable poll-ally DMK had warned the Congress that it would have to face the consequences of the Centre’s Sri Lanka policy.

Whether it’s electoral opportunism or not, Chidambaram’s statement that Manmohan Singh will visit Jaffna and meet with CV Vigneswaran, the chief minister of northern province, is remarkable because it significantly departs from India’s policy on Sri Lanka since the peace-accord debacle and assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Visiting a province, without an invitation from the government of Sri Lanka (at least for the moment), is an assertive gesture. If Chidambaram can make his prime minister do that, it will be a huge setback for Rajapaksa and his regime, and an enormous morale-booster for the Tamils in the island.

And certainly, an achievement that the Congress and the DMK can ride on during the elections.

Chidambaram appears to be on a mission with a mandate. He admitted that he was the organiser, host and speaker of conference on "Sri Lankan Tamils" right to livelihood and India's stand” in Chennai two days ago, where he spoke of the possibility of the PM’s visit.

Here are some more, previously unheard, straight-talk from him:

"If they had heeded our advice in the final stages of the war, Prabhakaran would have been alive today."

"The Centre will not rest until a genuine, detailed investigation is initiated against genocide and the perpetrators are brought to justice," he added.

"We hope Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa will change his attitude” (on equal rights to Tamils), he said.

"The Indian Prime Minister's decision not to participate in CHOGM is sensible and wise, and a shock treatment to Lanka. It is the Congress government which spends money for Tamils, raises voice for their welfare and exerts pressure on the Sri Lankan government,” said Chidambaram.

If Manmohan Singh finally ends up in Jaffna and Chidambaram gets to advise on his speech, the DMK-Congress alliance can atone for their opportunism of the past and face the electorate with some pride. But before that, Chidambaram will also have to address the question of training Sri Lankan military personnel in India (On Tuesday, The Hindu reported that over a hundred Sri Lankan army officers are under training in India). Perhaps, he also will have to advise Salman Khurshid not to entertain the all-powerful Sri Lankan defence secretary and the architect of the 2009-war, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in Delhi, till the elections are over.

Updated Date: Dec 03, 2013 15:28 PM

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