Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What made India change its stance so radically in October last year, is open to conjecture..!!!

Farewell to Alok Prasad...........By the time this is read, the results of the southern provincial council election would have been announced. The government was expecting a resounding victory and their expectations would no doubt be met. Even at the 2004 SPC election, the UPFA got 62% in the Galle district, 64% in the Matara district and 70% in the Hambantota district, and that was without anything very significant to show by way of achievements. As Victor Ivan pointed out in Choura Regina, Chandrika Kumaratunga was in power longer than J.R.Jayewardene, but had precious little to show for all the years in office. If at the tail end of a useless government like that, the people of the south gave the UPFA an average of over 65% in every district, today, when the Mahinda Rajapakse government has a great deal to show for the less than four years that it has been in power, it would be surprising indeed if the margin of victory is not significantly higher.

It is of course true that the JVP contested together with the UPFA at the previous SPC elections, but the JVP has so far proved incapable of taking away votes in significant numbers from the UPFA. Indeed the opposite seems to be true – the UPFA seems to have taken away (or taken back) the better part of the votes won by the JVP on its own (or purloined from the PA – depending on how one looks at it) between 1994 and 2000. The decision made by the JVP to contest elections separately has sent the party into a freefall making it irrelevant in local politics. Even though the JVP still has more parliamentarians than the Tamil National Alliance, the difference is that the TNA has got a new lease of life after the Jaffna and Vavuniya local government elections where they performed better than expected and proved that they have an independent existence even without the LTTE. The JVP however has been in steep electoral decline and in the face of such a fall, their voice has become irrelevant. The staggered PC elections have only served to enhance and highlight the decline of the JVP.

The JVP began their march to electoral prominence at the parliamentary election of 1994 when they won one seat in the Hambantota district. Subsequently, they managed to win the Tissamaharama Pradesheeya Sabha, thus establishing the first JVP controlled local government institution. As such, it could be seen that the JVP was desperately fighting to retain this base in Hambantota. The danger for the JVP is that there are only 12 seats in the Hambantota district and if they fail to secure at least one, that may spell the end of their hold on the district. The SPC election, because of the lack of competition from the UNP or the JVP, has largely been a home and home match within the UPFA. The president has been deeply disillusioned by the unseemly scramble for preferential votes and reports appearing in the newspapers say that he is toying with the idea of holding a parliamentary election first with a view to changing the electoral system. No firm decision however, has been made as yet.

Indian policy

President Mahinda Rajapakse hosted a dinner for outgoing Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad at Temple Trees last Thursday. Prasad will be taking up a position in New Delhi as India’s Deputy National Security Advisor – the second in command to M.K.Narayanan. His tenure in Colombo covered what was undoubtedly the most important phase in Indo-Sri Lanka relations in the post-independence history of both countries. The Indo-Lanka relations of the late eighties had much more drama but lacked substance. There was more fire and thunder in the late 1980s because the nature of Indian involvement in Sri Lankan affairs was different – they were at first mediators and later combatants in Sri Lanka’s conflict. During the last twelve months however, the nature of Indian involvement was decidedly different, one might characterize it not as intervention or mediation, but as a period of engagement with Sri Lanka in solving a problem that posed a headache to both countries.

The most significant thing that occurred during Prasad’s tenure is the 180 degree turn that India took after mid-October 2008 in her policy towards Sri Lanka. From the time hostilities between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE began in earnest after mid-2006, until mid October 2008, the Indian government had been sounding exactly like the governments of western countries, stressing that nothing could be achieved by war and urging the commencement of negotiations.

Pressure was building up in Tamil Nadu as well, with politicians on either side of the political divide demanding an end to the hostilities. Then something made the Indian Government change its stance completely; and with the change of heart in New Delhi, there was a corresponding change in the situation in Tamil Nadu. What was great about the High Commissioner was that he could continue as usual through these flip flops in policy. It is very easy for an envoy to make a spectacle of himself if his government was engaged in the business of lecturing Sri Lanka. It’s to Prasad’s credit that he did not do that during the ‘lecturing’ stage, making it that much more difficult to backtrack when the policy turned to one of engagement. That perhaps is the hallmark of good diplomacy - to have one’s options open. To be able to effect a 180 degree turn the way the Indian government did in October 2008, some western countries would have had no alternative but to recall their ambassador from Colombo and send someone else to implement the changed policy. But in Prasad’s case, that was not necessary.

It is also possible that the things said by envoys may commit their governments to courses of action that, under more careful consideration, those governments may not want. In the case of the Indians, what is said by the High Commissioner may be much more in consonance with what the Indian government wants, unlike in the case of the Western embassies where one sees the nightmare of the embassies being surrounded by local hangers-on adept at telling the ambassadors what they like to hear or what sounds plausible, and the ambassadors in turn end up briefing their governments erroneously. That kind of havoc is perhaps not possible in Indo-Sri Lanka relations. Be that as it may, it can be said that Prasad’s personality and his manner of doing things enabled India to smoothly shift gear from a position analogous to the west to a position more consonant with India’s own long term interests. What made India change its stance so radically in October last year, is open to conjecture.

There was firstly, the visit by the presidential sibling, parliamentarian Basil Rajapaksa to India, towards the end of October 2008. He is the UPFA government’s ‘Mr Fixit’ – if anything is broke, that’s Basil’s job. India’s change of stance was after this visit, so Basil’s skills as a diplomat, and his ability to convince, obviously had something to do with the Indian change of heart. There is a school of thought that the Mumbai attacks in late November would also have something to do with the change of attitude. But the fact is that the Mumbai Attacks on the 28/27 of November 2008 occurred after India changed its policy on Sri Lanka. The Mumbai attacks however may have convinced the Indian government that its change of policy on Sri Lankan terrorism was both timely and correct because the last thing India could afford was to have terrorism in the north as well as the south, especially in a situation where the Tamil terrorists were far more sophisticated than the Islamic terrorists who struck in Mumbai. Another contributory factor would have been of course the harassment of Sonia Gandhi by Mayawathi, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. This incident, was perhaps the moment that India hit rock bottom as a nation.

Rock bottom

Using her powers as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mayawathi, cancelled a land allocation made by the central government, banned a function organized by the Congress party and even diverted Sonia Gandhi’s motorcade when she came for the function using the police powers vested in the state government. This incident occurred on October 15, 2008. October 16 was the last day India issued a statement ‘lecturing’ Sri Lanka. The Mayawathi episode would have been the incident that convinced the Indian establishment that there will be no India left if these fissiparous tendencies continued. The need to strengthen national political parties as against the regional political parties had been felt within the Congress Party for some time, but what made the need to strengthen the centre a matter of national priority was probably the Mayawathi incident. If the Indian government did not act in time, the next Mayawathi may well have emerged in Tamil Nadu and with the backing of the LTTE, there’s no saying where things would have ended up. Most Indians are used to spats between the centre and the state governments, and if one speaks to individual Indians, they may not lay much store by the Mayawathi incident. Suffice it to say, that what Mayawathi did so high-handedly to Sonia Gandhi would have been unthinkable in the United States or Canada, which are also democratic Federal states, where the states enjoy even more power than in the Indian system. In fact, in comparison with other federal states, India is closer to the unitary end than the federal end on the devolution spectrum.

The Mayawathi incident was an indication that centrifugal forces were spinning out of control in India and the need to take remedial action became a priority. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the national political parties in India went into decline with governments being formed with the help of regional parties. These waxed stronger as the national political parties became more and more dependent on them. For a while it appeared that by assassinating Rajiv, the LTTE had all but destroyed India as well – until things began to change after October last year. Allowing the regions to decide the agenda of the centre would have spelt doom for India, and allowing pressure from Tamil Nadu to drive India’s policy towards Sri Lanka would have ended up strengthening centrifugal tendencies in Tamil Nadu as well. This was the point where the needs of the Sri Lankan and Indian political establishments dovetailed. Even the Tamil Nadu establishment realized that bringing the Sri Lankan issue to the centre stage, only strengthened the extremist fringe in Tamil Nadu, and if that trend continued, it would have turned the fringe into the mainstream as happened in Sri Lanka. So what we saw during the past twelve months is the coming together of the interests of the Sri Lankan, Indian and Tamil Nadu establishments in getting rid of the LTTE which posed a threat to everybody. Alok Prasad served as the interface between India and Sri Lanka through all these vicissitudes.

Dixit and Prasad

If we look at the Indian High Commissioners who have served in Sri Lanka, we will have cause to remember two of them. J.N.Dixit who was in Sri Lanka during the period of heightened intervention in the late 1980s and Alok Prasad who was here when the LTTE problem – the main point of contention between India and Sri Lanka - was finally laid to rest. The policy line that was pursued during Dixit’s time, resulted in a huge financial cost to India, the loss of more than 1,500 Indian soldiers killed and ended without achieving the result aimed at. The biggest insult to India as a nation was that she could not even commemorate the Indian soldiers who died in Sri Lanka due to the fear of Tamil Nadu. However the policy pursued during the tenure of Prasad resulted in zero cost to India - there were no dead Jawans and a result satisfactory to both India and Sri Lanka was achieved. That perhaps is the ‘bottom line’ in diplomatic terms.

What India managed to get rid of so cost-effectively, was a terrorist organization that has heaped insults on India that even Pakistan has not dared to even contemplate - such as the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This single assassination did more damage to India than anything done by Pakistan over the past sixty years – the power of the Indian central government went into decline with the assassination of a high profile national leader. This trend was reversed only at the last Indian general elections in April this year thanks to the efforts of Rahul Gandhi who dedicated himself to the task of nursing back to health the power of the centre and the national political parties damaged so grievously by the LTTE.

The extent to which an Indian High Commissioner can contribute to decisions made in New Delhi is debatable. Those who know the inside workings of the Indian establishment say that the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, will have much more say in deciding on policy than the India’s High Commissioners in say, Pakistan, Bangladesh or the Indian Ambassador in China. The reason for this is that almost every politician in India will have an opinion on Pakistan or China whereas interest in Sri Lanka is more limited. It’s mainly the politicians in Tamil Nadu who show an interest in what goes on in Sri Lanka other than those in the corridors of power in New Delhi. One may say that to the extent that High Commissioner has been able to influence policy towards Sri Lanka in New Delhi, his tenure in Colombo has been a success in that he has got the best possible result for India. Perhaps what can be said about Prasad’s tenure in Sri Lanka is that he leaves with a record that many ambassadors would be envious of.

SB and Mangal

S.B. Dissanayake and Mangala Samaraweera were the two most prominent ministers in the Chandrika Kumaratunga government that was formed in 1994. Both of them are now out of the SLFP. One left of his own accord and the other was basically booted out. The way that each handled his departure from the SLFP is very different. S.B.Dissanayake has clearly cast in his lot with the UNP and as was pointed out by us a couple of weeks ago, in his book "The Origin of the Universe, the Emergence of Man and Socio-political Evolution" he made a very clear ideological statement. Today, he’s ideologically UNP and more right-wing than J.R.Jayewardene himself.

Apart from this book on the UNP ideology, Dissanayake penned another book called the ‘Bandaranaike Troika’ which is the final verdict of this former SLFP general secretary about the Bandaranaikes who founded the SLFP and led it until 2005. This book has been translated into English but is probably still not available in the bookstores because the first edition was all sold out at the book launch at the BMICH. The Bandaraniake Troika is about SWRD, Sirima, Chandrika and Anura. To put it in perspective, one might say that the Bandaranaiake Troika has done to SWRD and Anura what Victor Ivan’s Choura Regina did to CBK. SB’s "Bandaranike Troika" is yet another sign of SB’s complete ‘UNPfication’ and yet another clear sign that he has absolutely no intention of going back to the SLFP. Even under the Rajapaksas, respect is still accorded to the Bandaranaikes (at least in words) as the founders of the party. But what SB has said about SWRD and his politics clearly makes it impossible for him to ever become SLFP again.

Mangala’s invective

Mangala Samaraweera in contrast, still insists on being SLFP. Just last week, Samaraweera wrote a lengthy 11 page letter in reply to a piece written by a columnist in our sister paper, the Divaina. Due to legal considerations, the letter may not be published in its present form. But this letter reveals Samaraweera’s mindset and those in the UNP may do well to stand up and take note of their main ally’s thinking. It was with the coming of Mangala Samaraweera into the orbit of the UNP that talk of forming ‘fronts’ and having ‘common candidates’ took centre stage. Samaraweera was seen as the prime mover in this endeavour. In this letter, Samaraweera points out that in 1956, when the SLFP formed its first government, the party did not contest under the hand symbol but as a member of a coalition with the wheel as a symbol. Contesting in this manner, the SLFP led coalition of 1956, was able to win 51 of the 60 seats they contested says Samaraweera. He goes on to say that at the time the SLFP entered into this first alliance, there were elements within the party who insisted that the SLFP should contest under its own name and symbol and that these elements were doing this at the behest of the then UNP government. Samaraweera points out that Bernard Aluwihare was the leader of the group that wanted to maintain the name and symbol of the SLFP in 1956 and that he joined the UNP when the SLFP formed an alliance against his wishes. There is at present some resistance from within the UNP to forming an alliance and jettisoning the party symbol and name in the process. This letter is a clear indication that Samaraweera believes that those within the UNP who talk about the party name and the symbol are latter day Bernard Aluwihares opposing the formation of a broad opposition alliance at the behest of the government.

The letter also contains a great deal of invective against the Rajapaksas. Unlike S.B.Dissanayake who has clearly left his SLFP past behind, Samaraweera still refers to the SLFP as ‘our party’ and claims that the present leaders of the party were conspiring to ruin it. It may be appropriate to point out that SB would be deeply appreciative of the Rajapaksas if this was indeed their aim! Unlike the liberated SB, Samaraweera still thinks of legitimacy in terms of proximity to SWRD Bandaranaike and holds that the claims of D.A.Rajapaksa being SWRD’s ‘shadow’ were false and that D.A.Rajapakse’s crossing of the floor with SWRD happened not by prior arrangement but by accident! To prove that D.A.Rajapaksa did not count for much within the SLFP, Samaraweera points out that he was made only a deputy minister in the 1956 government. Furthermore, he points out that while George Rajapaksa was made deputy finance minister in the Sirima Bandaranaiake government of July 1960, D.A.Rajapaksa was not given any position and that he was able to become deputy speaker only because the speaker R.S.Pelpola resigned to become minister of telecommunications and Hugh Fernando was made speaker.

While saying that the president’s father (D.A.Rajapaksa) counted for nothing within the SLFP, Samaraweera had made a spirited defence of his own father, Mahanama Samaraweera. His father, says Mangala, held equal rank to D.A.Rajapaksa as a deputy minister in the 1956 SLFP government. He says that in 1964, when it became necessary to accommodate the LSSP in the Sirima Bandaranaike government, it was his father who sacrificed his transport portfolio in order to accommodate Anil Moonesinghe. Speaking about Mahanama Samaraweera’s own defection from the SLFP in 1994, Mangala says that his father voted against the bill brought to nationalize Lake House not because he had been bribed as had been suggested, but that he voted according to his conscience and that he considered his principles to be more important than his position in the government. Obviously stung by the suggestion that his father ‘betrayed’ the SLFP, Samaraweera says that all the Rajapaksas, D.A., Lakshman and George ran against the SLFP at the 1960 March elections under the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna of Philip Gunawardene. Samaraweera says that if the 10 seats won by the MEP had been in the SLFP in March 1960, the party may have been able to form a government.

In Samaraweera’s 11 page letter, he has not spared Mahind Rajapaksa either. Drawing attention to the Pada Yathpra of 1992, he states that the only genuine anti-government protestors in that show of force were those around Chandrika Kumaratunga. Mahinda had organized it in such a manner as not to embarrass the then UNP government too much. Samaraweera says that Chandrika’s suggestion was to start the Pada Yathra in Kataragama and to bring thousands of people to Colombo to inundate the city with protestors. But Mahinda had decided to go the other way (from Colombo to Kataragma), thus taking people away from Colombo and saving the day for the UNP government. Samaraweera is playing to perfection the part of a dissident trying to ‘reform’ the SLFP. But this approach is going to create a barrier between him and the UNP rank and file. In the final analysis, Samaraweera is dependent on the UNP voter to get into parliament in 2010. If it’s Samaraweera’s aim to attract disgruntled SLFPers to his fold, how useful this exercise will be, is debatable.

As Victor Ivan pointed out in Choura Regina CBK had nothing worthwhile to show for her two terms in power. If one works backwards from that, and goes back to the 1970s, 60s and 50s, there has never been an SLFP government that has done anything worthwhile until Mahinda Rajapakse became SLFP leader. It’s only now that the SLFP has started delivering and it’s unlikely that the average SLFP member will be oblivious to this fact.


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