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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Vote against Sri Lanka - India's muddled diplomacy

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News came in the other day that the already agitating students of Chennai are going to launch protest rallies when the internationally popular Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty-20 cricket matches take place at the city’s hallowed Chepauk ground. They have also decided to pressurise the Hyderabad Sunrisers, a participating IPL team owned by Kalanidhi Maran, brother of Dayanidhi Maran who represented Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a Tamil party, in the Union Government, to sack Kumar Sangakkara, a Sri Lankan cricketer.

Protest rallies are a democratic right but the demand for sacking a player of a team on whom its franchisee has spent a fortune is surely encroachment on the rights of others. DMK sympathisers of Sri Lankan Tamil’s cause have been encouraged by the BCCI’s (Board of Control for Cricket in India) prompt acceptance of the request of J Jayalalitha, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, sent to Prime Minister to direct the authorities concerned not to play Sri Lankan players in IPL matches in Chennai as she could not assure them their security. 

The virtual ban on Sri Lankan players was a curious decision. It is the duty of the state government to provide security to everyone including foreigners. It does not have powers to prohibit their entry or, for that matter, exit unless so advised by the Centre. Constitutionally such a decision has to be that of the Centre. Besides, the illegal ‘ban’ puts quite a few franchisees of IPL to disadvantage eliminating from Chennai matches some key Sri Lankan players. Sangakkara himself is a key player, the captain to boot of Hyderabad Sunrisers and the team will have to keep him out at Chennai. Likewise, there are other Sri Lankans who have been bought by various teams at great cost but will have to cool their heels away from Chennai.

One presumes that the BCCI was advised by the Centre to do the needful. The simplest solution, however, would have been to take the IPL matches away from Chennai. This would have been to the satisfaction of the Tamil Nadu government as also the franchisees concerned. And, it would not have been the first time for the IPL management to have done so. Due to inability of the government of India to provide adequate security on account of the general elections in 2009 the entire tournament was shifted to South Africa. That was an international shift at a short notice; here it would have meant shifting of only the Chennai matches elsewhere in India.

The competitive politics in Tamil Nadu have already caused enormous embarrassment to India. Under DMK’s threat of desertion from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruling at the Centre, the government voted in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against Sri Lanka souring up relations with its small neighbour with whom it has had centuries-old ethnic, cultural, political and sporting relationships. Perhaps, the DMK would have parted ways with the UPA anyway, waiting as it seemed for a suitable opportunity. It found this issue handy and it withdrew from the coalition even before the voting in the UNHRC took place. The Indian diplomats were, however, directed to vote in a manner, as senior journalist Swapan Das Gupta said, “to impress upon the DMK and the global Tamil diaspora that India's sympathies lay (strangely) with those who have been trying unceasingly to secure the partition of Sri Lanka... making India a laughing stock in the region.

The UPA thus sacrificed national interests for observing coalition dharma, although the partner for whom the sacrifice was made had already deserted it. It had earlier sacrificed its acknowledged precept of probity and integrity in the government for the same reason just for maintaining itself in power. At that time also members of the same political outfit were in the reckoning.
  
There was, however, no respite for the UPA; its pummelling continued, this time by the counterpart of the DMK, the Anna DMK, a splinter of the former, which is currently ruling Tamil Nadu. Its chief minister upped the ante and demanded that India should boycott Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet to be held later this year at Colombo. And, politicians being what they are, members of every party joined the chorus in passing of a unanimous resolution in the state assembly wanting India to stop treating Sri Lanka as a friendly nation, to slap sanctions on it demanding a referendum for Tamil Eelam. Thankfully, the government, weak though it is, did not bend and rejected the demands out of hand.
 
Cho Ramaswamy, a well-known thinker, journalist and editor of Tamil weekly Tughlak feels that Tamil politicians are using Sri Lankan Tamils for their own political gains. According to him, the Tamil question was never an electoral issue in Tamil Nadu. Cho says that even the Sri Lankan Tamils have not made any big noise about declaring President Rajapaksa a war criminal and they never used the word genocide which DMK wanted India to have incorporated in the UNHRC resolution. According to Cho, it is some marginal Tamil parties in the state that have been hammering away at the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. Presuming that their thunder was being stolen away, the two major parties got into the act. Finding a weak Centre, these two parties led by arch political rivals started raising their bids to strengthen their respective support bases.

In a gratuitous article the other day in a prominent newspaper Hardeep Puri, former Permanent India Representative at the UN, justified the recent Indian action at the UNHRC. While doing so he seemed to have been oblivious of India’s unbecoming role in fostering terrorism in Sri Lanka that eventually led to tragic fallout over the country. No wonder, it drew a prompt riposte from Sri Lanka – recalling India’s ill-advised manoeuvres in regard to the recalcitrant Tamil Tigers fighting for what they called Tamil Eelam (Tamil Independence).

The diplomatic muddle at the UNHRC meet impaired the country’s relations with a traditional neighbour that has been ethnically and culturally close to it for ages. The Indian vote against Sri Lanka that was justified by Puri was decided upon without any diplomatic initiatives determined, as it was, by regional political pressures. If internal political compulsions become determinants for the conduct of the country’s foreign relations, why then have a full-fledged highly qualified diplomatic corps?

This is, however, not the first, nor perhaps the last, instance of states influencing the Centre in conduct of foreign relations, especially with neighbours. Foreign relations are a central subject and the states, barring consultative or advisory, generally have had no role to play. What one witnessed in respect of signing of Teesta Waters Treaty with Bangladesh and now in regard to the Sri Lankan Tamil question are extraordinary instances of intransigence of states to the detriment of the Union.

One wonders whether the Indian federalism was being taken advantage of. But, then India has had a federal structure from the inception of the republic and the Centre hardly ever faced, i.e. until the UPA came to power, such a situation where it had to tailor and remodel its foreign policy to suit the extravagant demands born out of exigencies of populism of the politicians of a state. One can think of only two reasons. The first is that the government at the centre is dependent for survival on its powerful regional allies, howsoever unreasonable and demanding they are, and would not let slip power from its hands whatever might be at stake, including adverse national repercussions. Secondly, politics in the country has turned so coarse that the prestige and image of the nation mean nothing to the self-serving politicians, whether at the Centre or in the states.

With the failure so far of the Centre in asserting its powers and authority what comes across is an image of the tail wagging the dog and, curiously, the dog merrily wags.

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