The impact of Indian elections on Sri Lankan politics

Chennai based Hindu quoted India’s Congress party President Sonia Gandhi as saying in Chennai on Tuesday that India was pressing Sri Lanka to amend the Constitution to ‘guarantee and ensure equal rights and equal status’ to Sri Lankan Tamils.

Addressing an election rally on Island Ground along with Dravida Munetra Kazhagam president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi she had said “In our neighbourhood, there is no issue closer to our heart than the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. A similar news item was published in the Daily Mirror on March 31 which quoted a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) front-liner, Mavai Senathirajah as saying that India has advised his party to go beyond the 13th Amendment when it holds discussions with the Sri Lanka government on power devolution.

One may argue that remarks by the leader of the Indias ruling party and that of Mr. Senathirajah points to a meddling move by the Indian leaders in Sri Lankas internal politics. And also it can be argued that amending the Sri Lankan Constitution is solely a responsibility of the Sri Lankan Parliament and it has got nothing to do with any other country. Even to suggest amending the Constitution, leave alone suggesting how to amend it, would be tantamount to fingering into the internal affairs of the country.

However, India’s suggestions or advises to Sri Lanka have been so normal in the eyes of the people that such occasional moves by the giant neighbour do not seem now to be treated as a violation of the country’s sovereignty even by the country’s nationalist forces such as the JVP, NFF and the JHU and they are being simply ignored.

One reason for this sluggishness on the part of the Sri Lankans might be that India has been exerting influence on Sri Lanka in respect of the ethnic problem in the island since 1980’s and thereby it has been normalized in the minds of the people of both the countries. Also there seems to be a subconscious recognition by the Sri Lankans that India has a stake in Sri Lankan ethnic issue as the politics of the Southern parts of India is in most cases affected by the goings on in the Tamil dominated parts of Sri Lanka. 

One may also contend that Sri Lankan leaders have been submissive to the hegemonic actions of the Indian leaders in the name of diplomacy since 1980s. President JR Jayewardene in eighties was adamant that Sri Lanka should be allowed to decide on its destiny and opposed Indian moves to influence his government on the Tamil issue. However, he was later compelled to accept the proposals by India under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to hold talks with the Sri Lankan Tamil armed groups such as the LTTE in 1985 in Bhutanese capital Thimpu. And it was former Indian diplomats Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy and Romesh Bandari who made the Sri Lankan leaders such as JR Jayewardene to accept the concept of power sharing.

President R Premadasa was the only leader after India began to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs who refused to submit to those pressures. However, he had to pay a huge price with his life for compromising Indian relationship for the highly unreliable relationship of the LTTE.

Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during their terms in office had taken steps to apprise Indian leaders on the peace moves with and the war efforts against the LTTE. One can recall that the controversial Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim was always shuttling between Oslo and Colombo via New Delhi.

Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in an interview with an Indian media bluntly put the reason for this situation. He said “We knew that only India influences us militarily. …. We knew that while other countries could or would resort to economic sanctions, only India had the power to militarily influence the course of our war operations.”

Despite the fact that the advises and the pressures by the Indian leaders may amount to fingering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, one cannot ignore the concerns of the Indian leaders on the happenings in the neighbouring island nation as unnecessary, given the impact that the Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue has had so far on the law and order situation in the southern Indian State of Tamilnadu. Sri Lankan ethnic strife has been a major issue in Indian national elections and some Central Governments had been toppled by this issue in nineties. Hence, Indias concerns are natural. Also India has not meddled in Sri Lankas affair in a serious way after its IPKF fiasco. However, wordings used in electoral platforms and remarks made to one’s own audiences might hurt others.  

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