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Challenging Modi in Colombo

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“I know what to give and what not to give.”
Mahinda Rajapaksa (The Hindu – 5.7.2009)

( June 8, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian ) During an extensive interview with ‘The Hindu’, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was asked about his oft-repeated ‘13th Amendment plus’ promise.

“Even tomorrow I can give that…” he replied promptly.
That was July 2009.

During the next five years, President Rajapaksa promised 13+ and denied promising 13+, again and again.

The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalithaa met the Prime Minister on 3rd June.

The Rajapaksas and their acolytes (including the BBS) were elated when Narendra Modi won. They seemed to have believed that Mr. Modi’s Hindu supremacism would make him bond with his ideological blood-brothers in Colombo. Mr. Modi’s non-dependence on Tamilnadu increased Colombo’s elation. The invitation to attend his swearing-in seemed the definitive vindication of this optimistic outlook.

“We are at ease. Now Mr. Modi can take independent and strong decisions on any issue,” Minister Keheliya Rambukwella crowed .

The reality was almost antipodal. Mr. Modi reportedly informed President Rajapaksa that he should implement the 13th Amendment expeditiously, and move beyond it. “Rajapaksa is learnt to have explained that such things could not be done overnight. Modi was to reply that it was now over five years since the separatist war ended. At one point the Indian Prime Minister had turned to External Affairs Ministry Secertary Sujatha Singh and queried what assurances was given by Rajapaksa to his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. She had replied that it was to fully implement the 13th Amendment and go beyond it.”

The courteous and gentlemanly Manmohan Singh would not have reminded Mahinda Rajapaksa of his broken promises so baldly. But Narendra Modi of the Gujarati-infamy is no stranger to bullying, anymore than the Rajapaksas are. The difference is that Mr. Modi is the leader of the regional behemoth while Mr. Rajapaksa’s domain is limited to 25,332 square miles.

Mr. Modi’s almost antithetical treatment of Pakistani and Lankan leaders is instructive. Mr. Modi went out of his way to be friendly to Nawaz Shariff, even at the risk of infuriating his own lunatic fringe. It was evident in his public greeting of Mr. Shariff and in gestures such as the gifting of a shawl to Mr. Shariff’s mother. . These pleasantries will not resolve the Indo-Pakistan disputes or bring peace to Kashmir; but they show that bilateral dealings, be they amicable or hostile, will be conducted with a degree of mutual respect. The balance of power between the two countries is far from equal, but it is not diametrically lopsided either.

Mahinda Rajapaksa got no public presents and the barest of handshakes. He was treated with demands and reminders. Unlike Pakistan, Lanka cannot realistically stand up to India on her own. The worst Colombo can do on its own is to catch some Tamilnadu fishermen. In the larger scheme of things, Lanka counts not per se, but as the pawn of a rival power.

So the Rajapaksas face a dilemma. They must either devolve power or give up their dependency on China.

Perhaps the President thinks that the meeting in Delhi was caused by a passing ill-wind; or that with Chinese backing he can square up to India.

That may be why last week, Minister GL Peiris ruled out 13+.

Now the ball is back in Delhi’s court.

Until Mahinda Rajapaksa became the SLFP/UPFA candidate, there was a broad Southern consensus about the need for a political solution to the ethnic problem going beyond the 13th Amendment. The unitary state had ceased to be a sacred-cow and federalism a dirty word. Sinhala-South was not opposed to greater devolution; anti-devolutionists were confined to the lunatic fringe.

A sea-change happened with the advent of the Rajapaksas. In Mahinda Chinthana I, Candidate Rajapaksa embraced the unitary state and rejected traditional homelands. In 2006, he got the JVP to file a case against the North-Eastern merger. With CJ Sarath Silva still in cahoots with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

The following report by Narayan Swami indicates how much of a travesty the case was: “….at the last hearing in the case, the chief justice kept guiding counsel for one of the JVP petitions….

Kang-Ishwaran, who appeared for the Tamil side, was not allowed to systematically argue his case….. The chief justice angrily ordered counsel for a leftwing party….to take his seat after just two minutes of appearance. When counsel for the JVP wanted to submit written admissions to counter Kang-Ishwaran, the chief justice gave his nod. But when Kang-Ishwaran sought similar privilege, he did not get permission.” .

Mahinda Rajapaksa is an authentic representative of the SLFP which opposed even the meagre DDCs and supported the JVP’s violent anti-Accord/PC campaign. His signature ‘political solution’ entailed replacing provincial councils with district councils and empowering the president to appoint any councillor of his choice as the chief minister (including from a losing party).

The Rajapaksas do not want to share power with any non-kin. The Rajapaksas need Chinese money. Sooner or later, they will find themselves confronting Mr. Modi.

Will Tamil Diaspora Maximalists save the Rajapaksas?

In Sri Lanka majoritarian democracy was misused to undermine both democracy and justice, and to turn Tamils into second class citizens in their own country. This demonstrates that democracy alone cannot guarantee minority rights; there must be devolution as well.

Sinhala and Tamil extremisms became the dominant ideological dynamic of Southern and Northern societies at different times. They turned the crisis into a hermitic one by rendering a political solution impossible. The LTTE is gone but Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism remains triumphant, a pillar of the Rajapaksa-ethos.

Removing the Rajapaksas from power will not resolve the ethnic problem. But even the first step towards resolving the ethnic problem cannot be taken without removing the Rajapaksas from power.

The UNP has moved backwards on the devolutionary front. But a reversion is possible, because the UNP admits the existence of an ethnic problem and accepts the need for a political solution.

Under a less archaic leadership, the SLFP can progress towards a more moderate stance on devolution.

So long as the LTTE was alive, Sinhala-Buddhist maximalists did not have to fear devolution. They could depend on the LTTE to shoot-down every devolutionary proposal.

Narendra Modi has offered his backing for a political solution around 13+. During her Colombo Press Conference, Navi Pillai said that “those in the Diaspora who continue to revere the memory of the LTTE must recognise that there should be no place for the glorification of such a ruthless organisation” .

These two stances, in confluence, indicate that India/international community opposes the LTTE but supports Lankan Tamils, opposes separatism but supports substantial devolution. The Rajapaksas and Diaspora maximalists are equally incapable of understanding this stance.

To succeed, Tamils must place their politics and their devolutionary proposals within this spectrum. If the TNA, as the pre-eminent Tamil party, remains within this IC/Indian mandated minima and maxima, the Rajapaksas will find themselves in a corner and exposed as the sole impediment to a political solution. But if the TNA succumbs to Diaspora maximalists, they will make the Rajapaksas look less extreme. Caught between Sinhala and Tamils intransigence, Modi-India might discard devolution as an exercise in futility, and seek for other ways to prise Colombo out of China’s embrace.

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