India’s neighbours are not necessarily its friends. They can hardly be called India’s allies. In regional and international forums, more often than not, they are ranged against one another. History, geography, religion, geopolitics, uneven development, competing ambitions and much else account for this state of affairs.
As a result, bilateral relations have their ups and downs and can be warm or chilly, euphoric or troubling. Even so, over the decades, the South Asian countries have learned to live and let live, regardless of the problems at home and across their respective borders.
The striving is to maintain friendly relations, a climate conducive for talks on matters of mutual interest and to prevent any situation from reaching breaking point. However, Tamil Nadu’s political parties, despite being an integral part of coalition governments at the Centre for long years now, do not seem to have grasped this elementary aspect of diplomacy.
The Kazhagams – Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, Karunanidhi’s DMK and Vaiko’s MDMK – do their best to vitiate India’s relations with Sri Lanka. The sideshows staged by these parties against India-Sri Lanka cooperation and against dignitaries (and ordinary citizens) from the island republic would be handy to illustrate a tract on “How to lose friends and alienate people”.
It is bad enough that New Delhi is not good at making friends of India’s neighbours. It is worse when the DMK and AIADMK push their sectarian agenda in external affairs and foment hostility to cultivate ill will.
Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit last week was yet another occasion for the Kazhagams to put up their predictable tamasha of protests – in the name of championing the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The frontline performer this time was MDMK general secretary Vaiko.
President Rajapaksa, who laid the stone for a University of Buddhist and Indic Studies in Sanchi, held wide-ranging talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi. Doubtless, devolution of powers to create conditions for Sri Lanka’s Tamils “to live with dignity and respect”, elections in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province and the political plight of Tamils after the LTTE’s defeat in May 2009 were discussed between Singh and Rajapaksa.
A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and Indian fishermen being attacked by Sri Lankan navy were among the items on the agenda of the two leaders, who also met without their aides.
The significance of the meeting goes beyond the issues discussed because, one, it was the first meeting between the two heads of government after India voted against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year. Two, this was the first meeting to deal with a range of substantive issues after June 2010. Three, Sri Lanka’s human rights record comes up for review at the end of this year. Four, New Delhi is keen to address the unrest among Tamils by pressing for their political rights. (In contrast, the Kazhagams appear to be interested in whipping up sentiment solely for political mileage in Tamil Nadu).
New Delhi has to make amends for the blunder of voting with the US against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC. Whereas the DMK and AIADMK keep targeting Sri Lanka as part of their petty one-upmanship games against each other. Their posturing has provoked attacks on innocent Sri Lankan pilgrims visiting Tamil Nadu. AIADMK chief minister Jayalalithaa objected to Sri Lankan defence personnel being trained in military institutions in India. Karunanidhi sought to outdo Jayalalithaa by saying that Sri Lanka cannot be considered “friendly” – because it allows China to execute defence projects in Jaffna.
It may not occur to the DMK and AIADMK that their posturing may be driving Sri Lanka (away from India) into the arms of China. If these parties persist in their unfriendly campaign, Sri Lanka may be forced to not only hand over more projects to China, or even Pakistan, but even start sending their defence personnel to these countries for training. Then the fat would be truly in the fire.
Sri Lanka is in a zone of Indian influence and is of enormous strategic value. India is Sri Lanka’s preferred partner and the one country from which it would like all help. Instead of creating conditions that make Colombo approach Beijing or Islamabad, it is high time the national parties make the DMK and AIADMK see strategic sense
These two regional parties are not being just perverse. They are being irresponsible and hurting India’s strategic interests. One would have expected that with stints at the Centre, they would acquire an understanding of India’s larger national interest, strategic stakes and global role. Far from that, as their role and power expands at the Centre, the Kazhagams’ worldview seems to be shrinking into even narrower confines.
The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator