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Will Mahinda's 'Indian fishing' trump card boomerang?

| by Upul Joseph Fernando

( November 19, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was reported in the media last week that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Indian Premier Narendra Modi discussed the issue of the five Indian fishermen convicted by a Colombo Court for drug offences and sentenced to death.Though there were rumours earlier that Modi telephoned Mahinda, New Delhi reports indicated that it was Mahinda who had telephoned and expressed the desire to speak to Modi. Mahinda is reported to have told Modi that he was prepared to grant presidential amnesty to the five fishermen. Despite these developments between the two leaders, the Indian High Commission in Colombo is readying to appeal against the High Court verdict to the Court of Appeal. The Mahinda-Modi telephone conversation appears to have embarrassed the Indian High Commission here. Even in the past during the rule of the Congress Party in India, Mahinda's Government had issues with the Indian High Commission in Colombo.

During the previous Congress regime in India, the then Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj visited Colombo and Mahinda hosted her to dinner. The then Indian High Commissioner, Ashok K. Kantha accompanied Sushma everywhere she went during the visit but Mahinda did not invite him for that dinner. The reason was the differences Mahinda's Government had with Kantha. And, Mahinda thought that it was Kantha, who incited the then Indian Government against his administration. Mahinda met Kantha rarely. He also lodged complaints against Kantha through certain channels but New Delhi placed its confidence in Kantha. Mahinda extended a separate invitation to Sushma to get Sushma away from the pressure from Kantha and his officials to turn her towards him (Mahinda).

Drive a wedge

Information flowing from New Delhi indicates that the Modi Government may be of the view that Mahinda's Government was using the convicted fishermen's issue to drive a wedge between the Indian Government and the Indian High Commission in Colombo. The following report in The Hindu may contain some truth to that effect: "President Mahinda Rajapaksa is ready to pardon the five Indian fishermen sentenced to death in Sri Lanka if the Indian High Commission in Colombo does not proceed with an appeal against the sentence, Sri Lankan Minister, Prabha Ganeshan told The Hindu on Tuesday. "The President said he could pardon and release the fishermen in two or three days, but a Court appeal would drag the case up to six months," Ganeshan, who met the President to pledge support in the upcoming elections, said. President Rajapaksa, the MP said, wanted him to convey this decision to the High Commission. When contacted, officials at the High Commission confirmed having received the call from Ganeshan, Deputy Minister of Telecommunication and Information Technology. The officials said they would decide the next step on Wednesday. The sudden development came on a day when an appeal was filed against the death sentence in the Colombo High Court. Ganeshan said President Rajapaksa had told him he had already discussed the pardon with Prime Minister Modi and that the High Commission was 'unnecessarily spending huge sums of money on the appeal.'

Adopting a tactic

Mahinda's Government may be adopting a tactic to win over Modi's Government by trying to offer a presidential amnesty to the convicted Indian fishermen. The Colombo Government wants to show that, while it was extending its cooperation to resolve the fishermen's issue in an amicable manner, it was the Indian High Commission that was confusing the issue. Earlier, before Mahinda went to New Delhi to attend Modi's swearing- in ceremony he released all Indian fishermen in custody to display his goodwill. India held a different view in that respect. It viewed that Mahinda's Government was capturing Indian fishermen knowing there would be problems in Tamil Nadu and then releasing the fishermen as a favour to New Delhi to resolve the Tamil Nadu uprising.

Be that as it may, Modi seems to be following a silent policy on Sri Lanka. Though such silence looked favourable to Mahinda's Government, Modi's silence also seems to disturb Mahinda's Government.

Though the Congress led Government of Dr. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi often spoke of the Sri Lankan Tamil problem and issued statements, Modi adopts a silent attitude on Sri Lankan issues. Some say that Modi is buying time till the next Tamil Nadu elections. They feel that Modi may be getting ready for a 'high jump' on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue close to Tamil Nadu elections. It may be a 'high jump' that could surprise the Colombo Government. Mahinda will need Modi when the UNHRC submits its probe report on Sri Lanka next March. Then Modi will weigh the Chinese submarines, fishermen crisis and the Sri Lankan Tamil issue to make decisions.

( The writer is an editor of the Ceylon Today, where this piece was originally appeared)

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