An odd thing has happened in Tamil Nadu politics. The Narendra Modi intervention, which got Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse to free five fishermen sentenced to death in a drug trafficking case, has forced all Tamil political parties on the backfoot.
While many of them have been trying to claim credit for something they could never have done themselves, Modi is getting back-handed praise for quietly getting them released. He has effectively shown them up for what they are: windbags who are part of the problem, not the solution, to the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Let's examine their reactions one by one.
J Jayalalithaa’s stand-in Chief Minister, O Panneerselvam, claimed it was all his former boss’s doing, who pressured Modi to pressure Rajapakse. He seemed to suggest that he was forced to use the centre as an intermediary in this matter for technical reasons. “Since this was an international issue, Tamil Nadu government could not have directly contacted Sri Lanka. Only Centre and External Affairs Ministry could communicate and take action. It was Amma (Jayalalithaa) and the state government which continuously pressed Centre to discharge its moral responsibility in this matter.”
This is laughable. For the reality is that Tamil Nadu politicians have been messing up India’s Sri Lankan diplomacy with gay abandon (see some of the instances below). If today they have no credibility left as stakeholders in the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, it is not because of the technicality that they are state players and cannot talk to Sri Lanka, but because Rajapakse would have turned a deaf ear to them. He has ears for Subramanian Swamy, another Tamil, but not the AIADMK or DMK.
While the DMK did not tie itself into knots this time and simply thanked the centre for its efforts, the more openly hostile smaller Dravidian outfits – which see the BJP as an upper caste party inimical to Dravidian interests – offered lukewarm praise, but attributed it to Tamil sentiments.
The New Indian Express quoted Thol Thirumavalavann of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, thus: “It is our duty to thank the Prime Minister for respecting the sentiments of Tamil Nadu people and taking direct action.”
Duty? The PM of India has no duty to get a convict freed. At best he can ask for clemency.
Direct action? All Modi did was pick up a phone. Thirumavalavann’s statement suggests that his thank you is not heart-felt, but merely intended for public optics.
Another Dravidian worthy, K Veeramani of the Dravidar Kazhakam, which gets its kicks from anti-Brahminism, said: “The act of the Narendra Modi government in respecting the sentiments of Tamil Nadu people deserves appreciation and gratitude.”
Once again, the implication is that Modi was pressured by Tamil sentiments, not doing something he would have normally done.
The reason why the Tamil parties are mealy-mouthed is clear: they know that Rajapakse listened to Modi precisely because the latter had credibility. He knows that Modi has a policy that is independent of the Tamil Nadu parties.
All Tamil mainstream and Dravidian parties have been anti-Sri Lanka and pro-LTTE not because they have any love lost for their brethren across the Palk Strait, but because it serves to stoke Tamil sentiment in the Indian state. All these parties take extreme positions in order to deny their rivals a chance to rake up the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka.
This is why Jayalalithaa was eager to release Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins – who were in league with the LTTE suicide squad that killed Rajiv and 17 others in 1991 – as soon as the Supreme Court said they need not be held in jail. Jaya did not wait two days to consider their release. She just said they should be out. They are still in jail precisely because she did not apply her mind while trying to outdo the DMK over their release.
Jayalalithaa has spared no opportunity to embarrass the rest of India to make her points. During the Indian Premier League last year, she did not allow teams with Sri Lankan players to play in Chennai. On another occasion, she packed off a Sri Lankan football team that was to play a friendly match in her state. She even suspended an official who okayed the idea in 2012.
When Manmohan Singh said he would attend a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013, the DMK, a key member of the UPA government at the centre, forced him to give it a miss. The AIADMK was on the warpath on this score anyway, trying to show up the DMK.
Given this mindless hostility of all Tamil parties to anything Sri Lankan, it is a laughable claim that they could have gotten any concession on the fishermen’s conviction with Rajapakse.
The only reason Rajapakse did so was because he saw Modi asserting himself with the Tamil politicians. He demonstrated this at the outset, when the Tamil parties objected loudly to his invitation to Rajapakse to attend his swearing in. Modi simply ignored the shrill nonsense and the Sri Lankan President got the message: Modi is his own man.
It’s not that Modi is unaware of the stakes for his own party in Tamil Nadu, where it hopes to be a significant player in the 2016 assembly elections. This is one reason why the freed fishermen were flown to Delhi rather than Trichy, where their families were waiting for them.
While this rerouting is important for the formal debriefing of convicts who are repatriated from another country, the message to Tamil Nadu was clear: you should know who brought them home.
The real lesson for Tamil parties is simple: the Sri Lankan Tamil issue cannot be milked forever for local political gains. Tamil politicians can’t shed crocodile tears over the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka and then refuse to engage with the government of that island nation to achieve their ends. No talks, no leverage.
For Modi, the next challenge with Sri Lanka is getting Rajapakse to honour a basic commitment to offer some degree of devolution to the Tamil areas of the north and east. This is the only way to bury the separatist idea of Eelam for good.
But that is a different challenge. The fisherman’s return proves that the Tamil politicians can achieve nothing without toning down their shrill anti-Sri Lanka rhetoric and venom. Modi has some leverage precisely because he is not beholden to them.
Updated Date: Nov 22, 2014 14:44 PM