Unlike other states, the BJP’s attempts to ingratiate itself to Tamil Nadu runs into a huge obstacle called Sri Lanka. Earlier this week, the BJP-led central government did itself no favours by abstaining from voting at the United Nations on human rights violation against Tamils in Sri Lanka.
At a time when Assembly elections are on in Tamil Nadu, it would not have been surprising had the Indian government decided to vote for the resolution condemning the violation.
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For the BJP, which is exerting itself to get a foothold in Tamil Nadu, a decision to vote in favour of the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka would have been a huge brownie point that would have validated its attempts to make a mark in Tamil Nadu. However, there would have been a flip side. Had the Modi government voted in favour of the Tamils, it would have been disastrous for India-Lanka relationship.
Already floundering over the last decade since the violent end to the Lankan Tamil separatist struggle in 2009, India’s decision may have spelt “finis” to any little hope of New Delhi regaining its influence over the island nation.
The Sinhalese government in Colombo, after decades of fighting separatist Tamils to the north and east of the country, managed to decimate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a bloody war in 2009. China made this possible by helping Colombo with arms and ammunition. India, which had been deeply involved in the Tamil separatist movement and had even sent in peace-keeping troops earlier, kept out of the conflict following the setback to the peacekeeping forces and the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
China, using the vacuum left by India, has rapidly gained influence in Sri Lanka, much to New Delhi’s dismay. The Rajapaksa brothers, who in 2009 were in government and in control of the Lankan military, are today back in the saddle with Gotabaya as president and Mahinda as prime minister.
In such a situation, India’s decision to abstain from the UN vote implies that the Modi government did not want to further alienate Colombo’s ruling dispensation. Already, in recent months, the Lankan government has made it amply clear that India is dispensable — cancelling a high-profile agreement that New Delhi and Japan were jointly involved in for developing Colombo port’s East Container Terminal (ECT).
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Reports have claimed that China was behind the moves to ease out India and Japan from the ECT project. For India, this represented the latest setback in Sri Lanka. Over the last decade, Sri Lanka has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and signed major economic deals worth billions of dollars with Beijing, including the 99-year lease of the strategic Hambantota port.
Sri Lanka ranks among India’s recent failures in its foreign policy in the neighbourhood. It has been a bugbear internally, too. The governments in New Delhi (first, the Congress-led UPA in 2009 and now the BJP-led NDA), by ignoring the pleas of Tamil Nadu to go to the rescue of the Sri Lankan Tamils, have inadvertently antagonised a large part of the local Tamil population.
Tamil Nadu, which has always had a soft corner for its Lankan brethren, has largely assessed New Delhi’s unwillingness to go to the Tamils’ help during the 2009 war rather harshly. So much so, in a state where the regional players – DMK and the AIADMK – are already strong and sitting pretty, there is no space left for a national party to make a mark. The Congress has suffered from this assessment and the BJP, now in government in Delhi, is experiencing the same pushback – as “outsiders” who don’t sympathise with local Tamil sentiments.
The anti-Centre feeling that existed in Tamil Nadu since the 1960s intensified following New Delhi’s refusal to intervene in 2009. It is not a surprise that in the same year, an extreme version of Tamil nationalism made its appearance in the state in the form of ‘Naam Tamilar Katchi’ (We are Tamil Party) led by a former actor Seeman. His emergence is an indicator of a section of Tamils hurting over the defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Seeman is an open admirer of the slain LTTE chief V Pirabakaran and proudly flaunts a banner with the insignia of a tiger at his public meetings.
The DMK and the AIADMK, which traditionally represented Tamil nationalism, have gradually come to be viewed by groups such as Seeman’s as establishment parties that don’t do much to Tamil interest beyond lip service.
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The foreign policy establishment in Delhi is caught in an unwinnable dilemma. Despite being pushed out of the reckoning in Sri Lanka, India has desperately tried to hold on to whatever clout it has left in the neighbouring country. From an overall geo-political perspective, it does not seem to make much sense to entirely lose out to the Chinese.
Unfortunately, caught in the crossfire of geopolitics is the issue of alleged war crimes and human rights violations against Tamils within Sri Lanka. Though, of the total 47 countries, 22 supported the UN resolution titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, backing an investigation into the rights violations, not much headway has been made. And, there is no chance of any progress given that the Rajapaksa brothers are in control and have refused to countenance any inquiry into the allegations of war crimes.
As for India, which in an earlier era could have applied pressure, its regional domination has slipped in recent years and it is today no longer a nation that can call the shots in the neighbourhood.