Jayalalithaa fires the first salvo

Ms Jayalalithaa’s negative views on New Delhi’s handling of the Sri Lanka issue are nothing new; in fact in the run up to the state elections, she had needled her opponent saying, “lives of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils could have been saved had Karunanidhi seriously considered withdrawing support to the Centre instead of threatening to withdraw support to it, as he was doing frequently.” However, Ms Jayalalithaa’s focus on Sri Lanka immediately after her electoral success shows it could be one of the key issues on her agenda in dealing with the Centre.

During her present tenure, Ms Jayalalithaa appears to be determined to quickly fulfil her electoral promises; in fact she has set herself a deadline of 18 months to do so. On the very first day in office, she signed a slew of orders approving a number of freebies for the people including distribution of 20 Kg of rice free to people below poverty line and an increase in old age pension.  And if the Sri Lanka issue is within her 18-month agenda (as it appears) we can see more fireworks in New Delhi-Chennai relations in the coming days. The reason for this is simple: she does not belong to the ruling coalition in New Delhi, the Sri Lanka Tamil issue could become the foil for Ms Jayalalithaa to needle the Centre as and when it suits her.

 Ms Jayalalithaa’s approach to Sri Lanka Tamil issue in the past had been lukewarm though she had periodically been demanding the return of Kachativu to India. One of the main reasons for this was the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for whom she had no love lost. This was to be expected as her mentor and the founder of the AIADMK, MG Ramachandran had fully backed Rajiv Gandhi and the India-Sri Lanka Agreement 1987. In fact in 2002 during her earlier term as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, she had arrested Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (MDMK) for his vociferous support to the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran of LTTE, a banned organisation in India.

However, her attitudes to the LTTE-led Eelam struggle took an about-turn after she struck a political alliance with Vaiko in 2006. Though she abandoned Vaiko in the recent election while cobbling up the AIADMK-led front, she appears to have retained her strong sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils. Is it only political expediency?

Though Ms Jayalalithaa is well known for whimsical decision making (and reversing them), it would be facile to dismiss her comments on Sri Lanka Tamils as mere political opportunism. Vaiko is no more there as an ally to influence her, and after her thumping victory her need for any political posturing would be minimal.

So Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to tread more cautiously on Sri Lanka Tamil issue now than ever before.  Perhaps it was this caution that induced India’s External affairs minister SM Krishna to ask his Sri Lankan counterpart Prof GL Peiris, now on a three-day visit to New Delhi, to observe “restraint” while dealing with Indian fishermen who stray into its waters during talks.

The rout of the DMK, an important partner in the Congress-led coalition in New Delhi, is likely to have far reaching consequences on the fate of its future status within the coalition. Already the Congress party has lost a lot of mileage in national politics for its role in ignoring the 2G scam for a long time and the unqualified political support it had extended to the DMK leader Karunanidhi, although DMK minister P Raja and M Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi were among the main accused. On the other hand, the Congress party as a junior partner of the DMK’s electoral front in the Tamil Nadu assembly poll suffered one of the worst drubbings in its history. To survive as a credible party in the state, the Congress has to take a serious relook at the future of its long term political relationship with DMK, to survive. At the same time, DMK has the numbers in parliament which will continue to be important in sustaining the Congress-led coalition in New Delhi.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence)

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