FOR the first time in three decades, there is free movement of vehicles and people across the whole of Sri Lanka, a country whose geographic position makes it key in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). While there still are military bunkers in Colombo, the inspection done by them is perfunctory, unlike in the past, when several motorists would be asked to step aside for questioning, especially if they spoke in Tamil. Because of the pressure from a humiliated Norway,most of Europe has distanced itself from the country, exactly at the moment when engagement has become essential, especially in order to dilute the swelling tide of Chinese influence in the island.
Wherever one goes in Sri Lanka, there are Chinese, including several thousand workers. Beijing has supplanted Delhi as the lead international player in the country, and is clearly looking at the country as a springboard to access the IOR. In less than a year from now, large ships are expected to dock at the Chinese-built port of Hambantota, unlike at Trincomalee,where as yet the Indian presence is minuscle in comparison to the Chinese in the southern redoubt of the Rajapaksa family.
Although the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was once run exactly the way the Congress Party has been since Motilal Nehru persuaded Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s to nominate his son Jawaharlal as Gandhiji’s political heir, by a single family – the Bandaranaikes-there came within the party a “Putin Moment”, when both the cadres as well as the non-Bandaranaike family leaders coalesced to effect a change. The erratic ways of Chandrika Kumaratunga, the daughter of two of Sri Lanka’s Prime Ministers, Solomon and thereafter Sirimavo Bandaranaike, led her to the embrace of policies that caused economic free fall,and to a Stop:Go approach towards the LTTE that only allowed that organisation to regroup and recoup from previous military setbacks.
In both her economic as well as her national security thinking, the vivacious Chandrika resembles the sombre Sonia Gandhi. Both favour sops and populist measures, and neither trusts private business. Both are in favour of prodding at security threats,but thereafter allowing them to escape.Indeed,the visible deterioration in Kashmir and the on rush of the Maoists (who seem to be becoming almost as prolific as Bangladeshi migrants into India) is the direct result of the Stop: Go policy favoured by Sonia Gandhi. In common with Chandrika, Sonia too places a high value on the advice given by NGOs, especially those from the developed countries of the world,and whose eager staff believe that they hold within their brains the solution to all problems, great and small.
Sonia’s aversion to private business in India (as distinct from private business abroad, a sector much assisted by that most effective of lobbyists,Ottavio Quattrocchi) has led to the Reserve Bank of India placing multiple restrictions on the access to funds of Indian corporates,while opening the gates for those from outside. Although some within the Opposition believe that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in charge of the government, the more knowledgeable are aware that it is only Sonia Gandhi who has the final word. Hence, rather than Pranab Mukherjee (who has emulated Chidambaram in jacking up both taxes as well as interest rates), it is the overall strategy of Sonia Gandhi and her NGO advisors that is responsible for the present situation, when Indian business is getting choked in its own country. Investment within India by major domestic corporates is drying up, and after the felling of the Telecom sector (by the naked greed of a few political families), it is the turn of the Information Technology (IT) sector to feel the lash. These days, rather than concentrating on meeting the threat faced by growing Chinese capability in the IT sector, many Indian companies are expending their time in answering queries from the Income-tax Department,which specialises in paralysing businesses at a mere hint from those running the country (to the ground).
Those, who know Pranab Mukherjee, are aware that he is a reflective student of economics, who is these days being forced to continue in the “police constable” (PC) shoes of his predecessor, who not surprisingly is as much a favourite of Sonia Gandhi as Shivraj Patil was till he became a political inconvenience in 2008 and had to be thrown into the dustbin.
The sceptics have been strengthened by the most recent Cabinet reshuffle, when even the more obviously venal of Cabinet Ministers kept their chairs, some getting moved to (equally lucrative) charges. Those in the know say that this is the consequence of the fact that a “tithe” system has gotten introduced,whereby those making money set aside a large proportion for “higher-ups”, much as officials in certain departments do.
Will the visible rot within the Sonia system lead to a “Putin Moment”, in which both the Congress Party as well as the public at large decide that enough is enough,and that drastic change is needed?
In the case of Sri Lanka, this happened in 2005,when the SLFP finally pushed aside Chandrika Kumaratunga and made Mahinda Rajapaksa its candidate for the presidential election. The new leader comes from the same cut as does Narendra Modi in Gujarat. Both are steeped in the local ethos, and ruthless in the execution of policy.
Looking at the example of Sri Lanka, a prediction can be made that if the waffling and weeping that passes for government security policy (and the colonial-era restrictions placed on Indian business) continues, then the present government would have paved the way for a perceived strongman to emerge as the Prime Minister, rather than the parlour politicians nesting in Delhi. Of course, to expect the Congress Party to follow the SLFP in shedding its ruling family is to ask for the impossible. After more than fifty years of dominance by a single family (and since 1997 by its in-laws), the Congress Party has been reduced to a band of paralysed cheerleaders.
If-as seems likely-the problems caused by Sonia Gandhi’s policy towards the Kashmir terrorists lead to a steady and dangerous deterioration in the overall security environment, the desire for a “strong leader” would become a tide that would be difficult for the political establishment to ignore. It was just such a tide that caused Boris Yeltsin to annoit Vladimir Putin as his successor (hence this columnist’s phrase,”Putin Moment”), and it was exactly such chaos that led to the selection of the quiet but relentless Mahinda Rajapaksa as the candidate of the SLFP and subsequently, as President of Sri Lanka. Unlike Srti Lankan leaders of the past -and India’s leaders to the present when dealing with their threats -Rajapaksa was unyielding in his determination to give no quarter to the LTTE.
The situation in Sri Lanka vis-a-vis the LTTE is similar to that faced by India in Kashmir. As in Sri Lanka, successive governments in India have been prepared to offer “anything short of azaadi” to the separatists,only to have their pleas at such a compromise rejected by those whose motto is “All or Nothing”. Of course, in the Indian case, they know that their allies in India and abroad will prevent the government from giving them nothing, hence their obstinacy to get “All”. In contrast, President Rajapaksa soon got convinced that the best choice for the state to make was to give the LTTE nothing, once that organisation broke the 2001 ceasefire five years later, fully expecting yet another slew of concessions from the new Head of State.
Although Norwegians may react a bit differently if they had an armed group operating within their borders, they seem extraordinarily tolerant of such groups, provided they operate in the poorer parts of the globe. In 2001, the LTTE was in dire straits. Their supply of cash was running low, because of fear among their foreign backers that donations to them could generate attention from a US angry after 9/11. Within the LTTE, splits were developing,such as between the Vanni cadres and the Battocaloa cadres. The effective strength of the organisation dwindled to less than five thousand. Amidst the turmoil, the Sri Lankan military was closing in on Jaffna, the primary LTTE redoubt, and the Supremo of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, immediately fastenened upon a brilliant strategy. He reorganised the multiple international operations of the LTTE, replacing the less emollient with those more practiced in winning public opinion in Europe, its main cockpit of external outreach operations.
Once again, Prabhakaran put on his peace robes, and was soon rewarded by three Norgwegians entering into his camp and-with diplomatic help from the EU- enforcing a cease-fire at the precise time when the Sri Lankan army was about to take out the LTTE, exactly as they had been in 1987, at which time they had been bailed out by Rajiv Gandhi, who sent in the IPKF, a force that had near-zero knowledge of local conditions and the unconventional warfare engaged in by the LTTE. However, despite such drawbacks, the IPKF succeeded in closing in on the LTTE by 1989, who thereupon found a champion in the new President of Sri Lanka, the India-hating Ranasinghe Premadasa. Amazingly, Premadasa gave both cash and weapons to the LTTE, who-unsurprisingly-used them against the Sri Lankan army as soon as Prime Minister V P Singh got back the IPKF in 1990. Indeed, Premadasa’s comfidence in the LTTE is similar to that of Home Minister Chidambaram,who follows Omar Abdullah in believing that the jihadis who went for training to Pakistan will come back as docile as South Indian vegetarians, and are therefore being given visas so as to spare the ISI the trouble of infiltrating them across the border in secret. It was the unwise (US-sponsored) “confidence building” period of freely-available visas during the previous decade that allowed the ISI to set up multiple nests in India. It will be Chidambaram’s ISI returnees who plunge Kashmir into chaos in a few years time.
And just as separatists in Kashmir-those who fund and encourage the use of terror-are treated as honoured citizens in Kashmir, with “interlocuters” begging for appointments, the LTTE leadership was given every benefit by the Chandrika-Ranil joint government, who ignored the reports of their own military and intelligence agencies about the boost in LTTE battlefield capability. By 2007, Supremo Prabhakaran clearly thought that he had amassed enough weapons and had trained enough cadres to clear the Sri Lankan military completely from the north and east of the country. He unilaterally broke the cease-fire, and in the process,set in train the events that would take his and his organisation’s life in 2009. President Mahinda Rajapaksa ignored repeated calls from the Norwegians, the EU, the US and finally India to once again call a halt to military operations,so that the LTTE could recoup its strengths. He stopped only with the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009.
As in Sri Lanka till the Rajapaksa period, India has a growing number of NGOs (most foreign-funded and foreign-staffed) that decry the security services and the mlitary and call for a cessation of action against both Maoists as well as Kashmiri Al Qaeda elements. India too pursues a policy of retreating just when the uniformed forces make a breakthrough, thereby giving the practitioners of violence a chance to regroup and once again regain the offensive. And as in Sri Lanka, the public are growing weary with the marshmallow policy scripted by international advisors who seem to be using their glands rather than their intellects in making prescriptions for India to follow.